Gliding Through the Highlands and Islands
The drama of Scotland’s Hebrides (“islands at the edge of the sea”), created by earthquakes, volcanoes, and retreating glaciers, is topped only by the floating-country-manor luxury of the Hebridean Princess. This romantic five-star vessel carrying just fifty very cosseted passengers (with a crew of thirty-eight), glides through the 500-island archipelago, still relatively untrammeled by tourism, off the western coast of Scotland.
The atmosphere of a house party prevails, with the terribly respectable guests lounging in the handsome chintz-draped cabins (some with private balconies), dining on excellent smoked salmon and Champagne (with eighteen varieties of Scotch whisky for sampling), and making daily calls on remote towns and little-visited lochs. Small tenders bring passengers ashore to ancient distilleries for a wee dram, a bracing ride on the ship’s bicycles, or exhilarating treks through nature reserves without another soul in sight. One day may promise a visit to a long-abandoned castle sitting atop a lonely bluff or nothing more intense than an afternoon’s stroll on deserted beaches or antiques-store hopping in a somnolent, waterfront town.
Rum, Mull, Colonsay, Staffa, Barra, Lewis—for those not familiar with the powerful, sometimes bleak, and often eerie beauty of the Hebrides Islands, a “Hebridean Sampler” is an enchanting temptation, from the moment the bagpiper welcomes guests on board through to the wafting strains of Mendelssohns majestic “Hebrides Overture” that warm the blanketed, sunset-gazing passengers as they linger on the deck.
Scotland’s Loire Valley
Some 600 castles dot the the Scottish countryside, with the highest concentration in the rugged Grampian Highlands, named for the hill range that bisects it. Many of these castles are dramatic ruins, such as Slains, said to have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, and Dunnottar, where Zeffirelli chose to film Hamlet. (The Bard himself staged Macbeth’s murder of Duncan in Castle Cawdor—home of the thane, or clan chief— northeast of Inverness, unofficial capital of the Highlands.) Others are beautifully restored, owner-occupied stately homes, such as Drum, Crathes, and Fyvie. Balmoral Castle, “this dear paradise” of Queen Victoria, is still the private summer residence of the British sovereign (with restricted visiting hours for both castle and gardens as a result).
An eleven-castle circuit through the Grampians linked by blue and white signposts make up the Castle Trail, historic properties owned by the National Trust for Scotland (overnight accommodations can be arranged at privately owned castle/hotels in the area). Following the Dee, Don, or Spey Rivers (think excellent salmon and trout fishing), it is an excursion that blends beautifully (excuse the pun) with visits to the dozens of single-malt-whisky distilleries. More than half of the country’s distilleries are in this area—the region’s other claim to fame.
Quaint rural accommodations are not hard to come by, but few match Cawdor Cottages for history and style. Set within the 50-square-mile estate belonging to 600-year-old Cawdor Castle, five cottages have been done up in flawless taste by Lady Cawdor, a former fashion magazine editor.
The City’s Crowning Glory
A must-visit on the cathedral city circuit, ancient York is surrounded by 3 miles of beautifully restored medieval walls built on Roman foundations; its walltop footpath is one of England’s finest pleasures. Within lies an architecture-rich city that is a joy for strollers, with all paths leading to its famous showpiece cathedral, the Minster. A wonder of Gothic architecture, it is the largest medieval cathedral in Great Britain and the largest north of the Alps: a breath-sapping climb up the central tower’s spiral 275-step staircase provides the chance to appreciate the scale of this massive building (offset by views of the Yorkshire Moors beyond) and the genius of the buttresses that hold it up—a sophisticated engineering feat completed before America was even “discovered.”
The present cathedral was begun in 1220 on a site where previous cathedrals and churches had stood, possibly as far back as 627. It is famous for its 128 intricate stained-glass windows, some of which date back to the Minster’s earliest days as do the elaborately carved Choir Screen and the rich interior of the Chapter House. Churches, like castles, represented power and importance (the archbishop of York is second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the hierarchy of the Church of England), but even prior to the Minster’s construction, York was an important location.
There was a major Viking settlement here from 867 and some streets still retain their Danish names; ruins dating to the 10th century are at the center of the extremely popular Jorvik Viking Center (Jorvik was the Nordic name for the city) in Coppergate, bringing you back to the year A.D. 975, long before the Minster’s first block was laid.
Where Golf Was Born
A pilgrimage to the courses where the game of golf was invented provides golf lovers with dozens of choices. Many of the links here are undisputedly some of the finest on earth. Officially recorded since 1552, golf is believed to have been a diversion for the bored Scottish aristocracy as early as the 14th century. You’ll feel like aristocracy yourself at a handful of storied hotels whose raison d’etre is to indulge guests with as much nonpareil golf as the long hours of daylight will permit—and luxury apres-golf accommodations to boot.
The Old Course at St. Andrews is the world’s most legendary temple of golf, which explains why you sometimes need to reserve tee times up to a year in advance. An elegant Edwardian country house, Greywails Hotel, exudes the warmth of a private home—one fortunate enough to overlook the fabled Muirfield Course. It’s the world’s oldest golf course, and visitors are permitted, with a little help from the Greywalls’s concierge. Gleneagles, whose Queen’s and King’s courses are the oldest of five, is framed by remarkable scenery.
The magnificently situated Turnberry Hotel faces out to sea and has its own lighthouse; it has hosted the British Open three times on its two famous courses on the untamed Scottish coast. Neophytes at Carnoustie call its course treacherous, but world champions call it the best in Britain. At Royal Troon, only men can comment on its old course; the club is so steeped in tradition that women are still not allowed to play it. Anyone can try their hand at Royal Dornach. At just 6 degrees short of the Arctic Circle, it is the most northerly of the world’s great golf courses, though with a balmy climate thanks to the Gulf Stream. The list goes on and on—there are well over
500 courses in Scotland—but why not start at the top?
Grand, Stately, Elegant
Although best known today as the location for the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard has been respected for centuries as one of the most colossal privately owned palaces in the British Isles. This early 18th-century residence (not really a castle, though sitting on the former site of one) holds court amid its own grandiose 1,000-acre parkland and gardens.
It’s still lived in by the Howard family, whose ancestors saw in the then inexperienced architect Sir John Vanbrugh the talent that would later secure him the commission to create the lavish Blenheim Palace near Oxford. The main body of Castle Howard was completed in 1715, including its signature gilt Great Hall that rises 70 feet from floor to dome. The 160-foot aptly named Long Gallery is the castle’s other highlight, lined with a large number of portraits of the Howard line by Holbein and others. Unless you’re a relation, you won’t be spending the night here.
But you can happily unpack your bags at the handsome, nearby Middlethorpe Hall. Commissioned in 1699, the same year as Castle Howard, it has recently been converted into what most hold to be the grandest country hotel in northern England. Surrounded by 26 impeccable acres that border York’s famous racecourse, the elegant William Ill-style hotel with its top-ranked restaurant is the perfect jumping-off point for a tour of Yorkshire’s dales and moors. Explore the area’s wealth of national parks and the countryside that inspired Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte and her sisters hailed from nearby Haworth, now a revered literary site of pilgrimage).
One of the World’s Great Mysteries
Stonehenge can still be the magical, mystical, mysterious kind of place it was probably meant to be—but only if you catch it between tour bus caravans. No one knows who built Stonehenge or why (far-fetched theories credit aliens from outer space, King Arthur, Merlin and the ancient people of Atlantis) although it is pretty certain this stunning collection of artfully placed rocks was used for rituals or ceremonies pertaining to the sun.
The massive trilithons—two upright stones with a cross lintel on top—were assembled some 4,000 years ago. Some of the standing stones weigh up to 50 tons—it is estimated that to drag each one into position took over 1,000 men. Scholars disagree about where the stones came from (some say southern Wales) and how they got to the windswept Salisbury Plain. In the 17th century, the widely held view that the circle was somehow connected to the Celtic druids took hold and has never died, even though it has since been proven that the site predates the Iron Age priestly cult by at least 1,500 years and probably more.
Researchers believe the stones were to be put together in three distinct stages (two of which were never completed), in alignments made possible by sophisticated builders with a knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and engineering unparalleled anywhere in Europe at that time. It was probably intended as a solar or lunar calendar, among other things; today, thousands gravitate here for the summer solstice.
A Walk Through a Classical Painting
Inspired by the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin, Stourhead is arguably England’s most fabled garden, and one that has long elicited superlatives. It is the most celebrated example of 18th-century English landscape gardening, confirmation that no country holds a candle to England’s horticultural expertise.
Stourhead’s poetic vistas and landscapes punctuated with architectural highlights such as a neoclassical Pantheon, a grotto, and temples built to Flora and Apollo create a classical effect that is the finest of its genre in England, the prototype much mimicked around the world in private and public gardens alike. The 18th-century Palladian-inspired house, whose beautiful interior is also open to the public, was the home of a wealthy local banking family. “Henry the Magnificent” Hoare, inspired by a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, decided to relandscape his estate’s 100-acre grounds upon his return home. Although Stourhead is a garden for all seasons, perhaps among its most romantic walks would be one in early fall along the footpaths that wind around a chain of small manmade lakes, or in summer when its famous dells of rhododendrons and camellias are in full bloom.
Within strolling distance of the gardens’ main gate, the Spread Eagle Inn is a local institution, known for its Sunday lunches and leisurely dinners of simple, traditional cooking. Better yet, stop by on your way into the gardens: the inn packs a great box lunch for a picnic on the bucolic grounds, in a shady corner of your choice.
A Masterpiece of Medieval Technology
The paintings of Turner and Constable long ago familiarized the world with Salisbury Cathedral and its remarkable 404-foot spire. The cathedral was begun in 1220 and was completed in a record thirty-eight years (the spire, the tallest structure then known in the world—and still the highest in England—was added toward the end of the 13th century). With many great cathedrals requiring centuries of construction, this was a remarkable engineering accomplishment not unlike that of 20th-century Manhattan’s most daring skyscraper projects.
As a result of its quick completion, Salisbury is the most stylistically unified of all the great European cathedrals and the very pinnacle of what is known as the Early English or pointed Gothic style. Sir Christopher Wren measured an alarming 29.5-inch tilt of the spire in 1668, but no further shift has since been detected.
Those who trust architecture from 700 years ago can climb the spire’s steps for a view across the small town of Salisbury and the Salisbury Plain in the direction of Stonehenge, Wiltshire’s other significant and far more ancient site. The attractive and still lively market town of Salisbury was created by the cathedral, not the other way around, which often was the case.
Welcoming pilgrims and wayfarers since its earliest days, the 13th-century Rose and Crown Inn, with its hand-hewn beams and welcoming air still firmly intact, is an inviting place to spend the night. It’s a lovely old inn whose lawn stretches down to the Avon River, where relaxed guests can dangle their feet and count the swans that glide by. The view is a Turner canvas come to life, the cathedral’s soaring spire in full sight.
England’s Finest Medieval Castle
For nine centuries at the heart of British history, the magnificent feudal fortress of Warwick is the country’s finest medieval castle. Its commanding position on an escarpment above the River Avon was described as “the most noble site in England” by no less a connoisseur than Sir Walter Scott. Originally built to keep visitors out, it is more visited than any other English house in private hands, and the second most visited castle after Windsor.
The guards at the gate keep the long lines moving within the monumental Norman walls. One of Europe’s most important collections of medieval armor and weaponry is on display, together with paintings by such old masters as Rubens and Van Dyck.
The castle’s bellicose character is best viewed from outdoors, although it was tempered in the 18th century by 60 acres of grounds, landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, where preening peacocks have since taken up residence.
Drama, the Bard, and Ghosts at Shakespeare’s Birthplace
The timeless appeal and universality of William Shakespeare’s work have made his hometown a point of pilgrimage. Already a flourishing market town in the Bard’s lifetime, Stratford’s half-timbered homes and air of historical prosperity would most likely draw visitors even without the fame of her native son. Although visits to his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage, to the house where he was born, or to the 13th-century Trinity Church where he and his family were buried make up the required circuit, tickets for a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company will set your visit apart. Of the three theaters in town, most classics are performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; there are weekly matinees for those heading back to London in time for dinner. The Elizabethan-style Swan Theatre was reconstructed along the lines of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre, and The Other Place is a more intimate venue for experimental productions.
Unpack at the magnificent Ettington Park Hotel, a stately neo-Gothic home on the banks of the River Stour. Sitting on the same site where a manor was first accounted for in the Domesday Book of 1086, this 19th-century luxury country house has long been associated with the Shirley family (Shakespeare’s Hal speaks of a “valiant Shirley” in Henry IV). The family ghosts linger still—the legendary Lady in Grey has quite a reputation in England. One of the more famed hauntings of the hotel has occurred here a number of times: the same book, Sir Walter Scott’s St. Ronans Well, has been known to fly off the shelf, always falling open to the same verse: “A merry place, ’tis said, in days of yore; But something ails it now—the place is cursed.” Guests will be hard pressed to find anything less than blessed about this pampering Warwickshire escape nestled amid 40 acres of deer-inhabited parkland and manicured gardens.