Written by Lynsey Oxton
Bubbling brooks, waterfalls, wild woodland and the impressive Grampian Mountains – just some of the reasons why Queen Victoria was so drawn to this part of Scotland and chose to make it a part of the Royal Estate.
Since the Royal Family have almost claimed this gorgeous part of Aberdeenshire as their own, it seemed fitting that our first stop would be Balmoral.
The world-renowned Balmoral Castle is the Scottish residence of the Royal Family and their annual summer retreat. At this point I’d normally have a lovely photograph of the castle to share with you, however given that the Queen was/ had been in residence when we visited, we were not allowed anywhere near the castle itself (tours would resume in October). So, rather than see the castle as I had hoped, we had to settle for the gift shop and the Queens corgi’s! And road trip sweets are a necessity.
We might not have timed it right to see the castle but we did happen to visit Balmoral on the day when the Queen and Prince Phillip departed for Windsor. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the Royal pair, but we did see their removal vans leaving the estate. Who knows what treasures lay inside?
Neighbouring Ballater, sitting on the River Dee, is a smallish Victorian village housing many of the food suppliers to the Royals – as they will proudly let you know at every opportunity!
It is well known for its (now redundant) railway station, a Royal landmark that used to be the station used by the monarchy visiting Balmoral Castle – which was the case right up until 1966.
The original station was subject to a fire in 2015, but has since been rebuilt to almost an exact replica. It is now an information centre, a library, a tea room and a carriage-themed restaurant – and it’s the most visited tourist attraction in Ballater. Easy to see why really.
Other than the obvious Royal connection, Ballater is a good place to while away the hours, browsing the gift shops or relaxing in a cosy cafe or pub.
We had a few hours ‘to kill’ before we were able to check into our guest house in Braemar, so a wander around Ballater filled the time perfectly. Of course, it’s a great place to stay itself, with plenty of accommodation and eateries. Like many of the towns and villages in Deeside, it’s a favourite with hikers, given its prime location in the Cairngorms National Park.
Our ‘home’ for the next two nights was to be Braemar – just a short 20 or so minutes drive from Ballater and also famous for its Royal connections.
For a small village of around 400 residents, Braemar packs a lot in. There’s restaurants-a-plenty, warm and welcoming pubs, more independent shops than you can shake a stick at, fancy art galleries – and a ‘Sunday Times Hotel Of The Year’ too! Not too shabby for a little Aberdeenshire village.
Do you like castles? Braemar boasts two: Braemar Castle and the ruin of Kindrochit Castle. Whilst the former was lived in until as late as 2006, the latter has been ruins for hundreds of years – apparently destroyed to kill the inhabitants who had fallen ill to the Plague. Brutal!
You can walk around the ruins of Kindrochit Castle and imagine what each of the rooms would have been like – however, like many other Scottish tourist attractions subject to Covid restrictions, we were unable to go inside Braemar Castle – but could at least have a look from the outside.
The one thing that Braemar is really famous for is hosting the annual Highland Games (the Braemar Gathering). This sporting event has been an important part of Scottish culture for hundreds of years. Being in Royal Deeside, you guessed it, the VIP spectators are the Royals!
The games are held on the first Saturday in September, although this years was a ‘Covid Special’ and took place virtually! I believe tickets are already being sold for 2021, however.
If you’re a fan of the games and planning to travel to Braemar especially to watch it, I’ll let you into a secret – book to stay at Moorfield House – our bedroom overlooked the ground and the guest terrace offered a private viewing point to rival that of the Queens! You heard it here first.
A visit to the Fife Arms is a must!
Now I mentioned earlier about the Sunday Times Hotel Of The Year. Not only can you stay there (for a pretty hefty sum), but you can also eat and drink there too. So that’s exactly what we did!
Although the building has been around since 1856, it reopened in 2019 as a hotel, pub and restaurant with a vast amount of money invested on quirky, original art and a focus on Scottish craftsmanship. It was, of course, opened by none other than Prince Charles and Camilla.
The Fife Arms is the place to go if you want to push the boat out and have a splurge. We started with an aperitif in the Art Deco cocktail lounge (Elsa’s). The cocktails whilst not cheap, are perfectly garnished and not shy on the alcohol! The lounge is dedicated to fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli who apparently had a love for all things pink and fancy. So there’s no surprise that the cocktails have names like ‘Shocking Pink’, ‘Buried Gold’ and ‘The Fairy and the Fiann’. No ‘Sex On The Beach’ here, love.
We later moved into the ‘Clunie Dining Room’ to sample the delights of the menu. Definitely not disappointed; super tasty food, attentive staff and a relaxing atmosphere. This is definitely ‘treat material’ – and when better to treat yourself than on holiday?
Walking in the Cairngorms
Whilst staying in the Royal Deeside area, we thought it only right to do a bit of walking in the Cairngorms.
The first of our two walks was in Braemar at the Mar Lodge Estate. This took around an hour – nothing to strenuous after an evening of drinking cocktails! This route was my choice and not just because it was short – but because it came with the promise of seeing stags in the woods. Didn’t happen, unfortunately. Don’t believe everything that friendly waiter tells you! Still, the scenery was pretty awesome – who doesn’t love a big waterfall?
The second (his choice) was a far longer walk, lasting almost four hours and which took us within the boundary of the Balmoral estate and around a large freshwater loch.
Anyone who loves walking will undoubtedly love Glen Muick and the stunning scenery provided by the calm waters and craggy mountains. It’s a relatively easy walk, provided you have the right footwear and fairly generous weather. Cyclists are also a big fan of this route.
Wildlife photographers, also, will enjoy looking for red squirrels, wild rabbits, otters, birds of prey and deer.
The scenery in Royal Deeside and the Cairngorms is unrivalled. Quite honestly, it is the prettiest part of Scotland that we saw on our trip.
Royalist or not, it’s an area of the Country that you really must consider including on your itinerary if you enjoy history, walking and art. I am so glad we found it by chance!