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.