Majestic Wilderness in the Island’s Northernmost Fringe
Rural, isolated, rugged, and always breathtaking, Donegal—Ireland’s northernmost county—has a distinctive, top-o’-the-world feel. Its 230-plus miles of sea-torn, largely uninhabited coastline define the northwestern comer of Ireland that faces the open sea toward Iceland. Slieve League, the tallest sea cliffs in Europe, are its dramatic highlight. But like a microcosm of Ireland, it also includes heather- covered moors, peat bogs, and the island’s steepest mountains.
A corner of Ireland that the bus caravans of Waterford shoppers and Blarney-kissing tourists never allot the time to visit, independent Donegal still clings proudly to Gaelic, Ireland’s native language (it is the largest area where it is still widely spoken), and ancient customs. Deep within the county, far from its distinctive coastline, is Glenveagh National Park, considered Irelands most beautiful (the concept of national parks is still rather new to Ireland) and one of the country’s most important natural attractions.
The park itself is closed to traffic, but a jitney from the Visitors’ Center provides drop-off service at Glenveagh Castle, built in the 19th century, whose important exotic gardens flourished under its American owner, who left it to the Irish nation in 1983. Beyond the 4 acres of cultivated gardens of flora brought from Chile and Tasmania, the Far East and the Himalayas, the park gradually reverts to a wild lonely loveliness that takes many visitors by surprise.
Wales’s Greatest Religious Monument
People still flock here in the thousands the way they did in the Middle Ages when St. David’s Cathedral was one of the British Isles’ most popular pilgrimage spots. Small by English standards, the medieval cathedral dedicated to Wales’s patron saint is the largest in the country, overwhelming what is officially Britain’s smallest city (the presence of a cathedral designates the village as a city despite its size). St. David founded a monastic community in this coastal comer of southwestern Wales around A.D. 550 that grew to great importance.
The cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is believed to stand on that site, flanked by the once magnificent Bishop’s Palace; then boasting lavish apartments, it now sits quietly in glorious ruins. Together they constitute Wales’s most sacred site, and one of its most visually evocative—the setting is a remote and tranquil part of the valley of the River Alun barely inland from the coast whose jagged terrain protected it from marauding pirates. A number of ecclesiastical buildings grew up in the shadow of the centerpiece cathedral. Dating back to 1860, the Choir School is one of the more recent, and is the site of today’s Warpool Court Hotel, whose manicured lawns lead down to the Irish Sea.
It is all part of the 250 miles of unspoiled coastline whose inlets, coves, and huddled bays make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, one of three national parks that cover Wales’s most scenic landscape and the only one in Britain to include its balmy coastline. Its 182 miles of marked serpentine footpaths provide excellent walks in the company of wildflowers and seabirds.
Where the Lowlands Meet the Highlands
The heather-clad hills of the Trossachs and their centerpiece, Loch Lomond, the largest and most famous of Scotland’s fjordlike lakes, have enthralled travelers since novelist Sir Walter Scott’s writings first popularized the area in the early 19th century. Here the Lowlands meet the Highlands of the north and west in an area rich in history thanks to Rob Roy (Red Robert), a real-life 18th-century Highlander, cattle dealer, and outlaw who became a Scottish folk hero akin to England’s Robin Hood. In addition, there is Stirling Castle, the country’s most significant stronghold—whoever held Stirling controlled the Scottish nation.
Dating to the Middle Ages and second only to Edinburgh Castle in grandeur, it was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, as an infant monarch. Just north of Glasgow, the Trossachs envelop visitors in the sort of pristine wildness usually associated with the Highlands farther north. The “bonnie, bonnie banks” of Loch Lomond (dotted with thirty-some tiny islands) are bonnie indeed, but Sir Walter Scott also favored the freshwater beauty of Loch Katrine.
Gourmet Meals on the Banks of Loch Broom
You’ll leave the world behind when you step on the private launch that brings you to this remote 17th-century sheep drover’s inn on the steep shores of Loch Broom. Altnaharrie’s otherworldly loveliness is due in part to no TV, no phones, and a generator that shuts down at night. There are just eight simple bedrooms of great charm to accommodate the worshipful food lovers who come from all over to partake in the artistry of Norwegian-born chef Gunn Eriksen.
A remarkable meal begins as you sit at a table where wildflowers are folded into your napkin. There’s no choice in the set five-course menu, but you’ll be happy to leave the evening in the masterful hands of the chef who relies entirely on whatever is available from the local waters and suppliers. She has achieved celebrity status by not adhering to strict gastronomic conventions; the success of each inventive dish derives from delicate and simple flavors. Breakfast is as much a joy as the evening’s repast was a masterpiece.
Amid a Poetic Landscape That Never Ends
Every country estate must have country, and Kinnaird is surrounded by 9,000 glorious acres of it. Even in Scotland’s beautiful countryside, few of the many castles or manor houses accepting overnight guests can match this. Despite the breadth and enormity of the estate, and the growing reputation of its impeccable restaurant, Kinnaird, with just nine beautifully furnished rooms in the magnificent 1770 manor, is a place of great warmth and charm.
Its welcoming ambience is due in large part to the smiling, house-proud staff and the easy going outlook of the owner, the American-born Constance Ward. She ensures the well-heeled guests an authentic Scottish country-house atmosphere free of stifling reserve, but with an infallible attention to the utmost detail more commonly found in five-star hotels. Set above a bluff overlooking the fish-rich River Tay and with storybook views down the valley, Kinnaird was built as a hunting lodge for a local duke of obvious wealth.
It still attracts a mostly field-and- stream clientele, though even the most unoutdoorsy types are lured by country walks through a contemplative and poetic landscape of woodlands, moors, lochs, ponds, and heather-covered hills.
In the Middle of the Ocean – Wildlife, a Victorian Castle, and Farm-Fresh Meals
The small, fertile island of Shapinsay, one of the northernmost of the sixty- seven islands that make up Scotland’s remote Orkney archipelago, is even today given over mostly to cattle and sheep rearing and is small enough to walk around in one day. Here you can get away from Wi-Fi and tax collectors and reduce stress to zero; seal and bird watching (with some 300 species identified in the islands) are the highlight of the day, and your background music is the bleating of lambs and the sound of seagulls against the ocean waves.
The seven-spired Balfour Castle is a land mark of the windblown Orkney Islands. Built in 1848 around an existing 1793 house by Shipinsay’s most important benefactor, Balfour Castle was purchased in 1960 by a Polish officer, Captain Zawadski. His Scottish widow and her family run it today as a distinguished home and country manor for twelve lucky guests. Meals are ample, simple, and delicious, with vegetables from the castle’s gardens, locally grown meats and shellfish from the island’s waters (guests are not likely to recall ever tasting sweeter lobster or scallops) and served when the gong is sounded from somewhere deep in the castle.
If there’s a TV on the premises no one ever requests Cliffs of the Orkney Islands it, and the only newspaper on the island is the Orcadian, which comes out every Thursday. The only pub in Shapinsay, found in the castle’s old gatehouse, gives a unique spin to “island nightlife.”
A Victorian City’s Top Address
If Leonard Bernstein found One Devonshire Gardens “inspirational” and “pure theater,” imagine the effect it has on the average unsuspecting guest. You must ring the front doorbell upon arrival, but it is the last time you’ll raise a finger here. Three exquisitely refurbished Victorian town houses dating to the late 1800s have been connected to create a chic jewel box whose superb service and much-touted restaurant may tempt one to see not a whit of Glasgow beyond these gorgeous walls. Critics have cited Glasgow as being the greatest surviving example of a Victorian city, and here is prime proof.
Millionaire guests will feel right at home; everyone else will feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven, cosset- ted by a genuinely thoughtful staff from the front door onward. Its quiet location in the leafy, fashionable West End area of town makes it feel just removed enough to add to its exclusive atmosphere; the sumptuously decorated rooms, many of them with plushly draped, rich mahogany four-poster beds and crackling fireplaces, also help.
On a par with the best that Paris or London has to offer, accommodations in Glasgow took a quantum leap forward with the opening of this privately owned boutique hotel in 1986. Reason enough for a trip to the city.
Local Rebel and Master of Modern Design
Glasgow’s greatest architect-designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868- 1928), earned Scotland’s second city its reputation as a hub of creativity, but his name recognition was at an Art Lover—designed for a competition in 1901—was finally built in Bellahouston Park, southwest of the city. His undisputed masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, has become a place of pilgrimage: when completed in 1899 it was heralded as Europe’s finest example of Modernism.
His restaurants and tearooms about town were also renowned: visit the Willow Tearooms, the only example still standing. Mackintosh ultimately became better known for his furniture designs than for his architecture—some of the furniture at the Willow may be reproduction, but the atmosphere is authentic: ask to be seated in the Salon de Luxe, an Art Nouveau fantasy.
Viewing his designs in their original settings helps Mackintosh fans understand the aesthetic and social context that shaped his ideas.
His inimitable style remains vividly alive throughout town, from designs found on the wrought-iron gates of a private garage to decorative motifs used on restaurant menus and a low ebb until 1996, when his House for the ubiquitous stylized rose that has become a kind of Glasgow logo.
A Grand Hotel on Wheels
From the kilted piper who greets you as you board the restored vintage train to the magnificent scenery that rolls by your mahogany-paneled parlor car, there is no finer way to view the Scottish Highlands. Traveling through mountains and glens in romantic Edwardian elegance on little-used railway lines, stopping along the way to visit magnificent homes and private castles, this train is renowned as one of the world’s most exclusive.
Your five-star vantage point is like an elegant country house on wheels, with seamless service and cabins fitted out in rich wood with Scottish-motif marquetry. The kitchen produces excellent meals reflecting the local bounty, from full Scottish breakfasts to dinners featuring loch prawns, smoked salmon, or rack of lamb. The wine selection is surpassed only by the whisky tastings—you’ll not be driving home tonight.
A Traditional Frenzy of Good Fun at Year’s End
This is the national holiday throughout Scotland, celebrated with special fervor in Edinburgh. It is the year’s ceilidh, the Big Event, when parties go on in houses, pubs, and village halls. In Edinburgh, it is also Europe’s greatest street party with song and dance morning. Its strongest tradition, inextricably carrying through the night and well into the linked to the good time enjoyed by all, is the consumption of great quantities of spirits (let’s remember where Scotch whisky originated) that pushes an already boisterous holiday over the top.
The famous Scottish dish the world loves to hate, haggis (a loosely packed mutton and oatmeal sausage boiled in a sheep’s stomach), plays a major role in the evening’s hours-long meal, often accompanied by dancing and the soulful wail of bagpipes. The meaning of “Hogmanay” has long been locked in controversy. It is said that it derives from either the Anglo-Saxon Haleg Monath (Holy Month) or the ancient Gaelic Oge Maidne (New Morning).
In some towns, Hogmanay is still called Cake Day because children used to go from door to door collecting gifts of cake and confections. What has survived the centuries is the Scots’ determination that the New Year begin on a happy note.