North East & Moray Firth
Scotland's north-east, between the Rivers Dee and Spey is classic secret country. It lies not just in the hills, but partly beyond them. The rolling plains of Moray and the old counties of Banff and Aberdeen stretch down to a peerless coastline where dolphins roll in the tides of the Moray Firth.
This is a holiday experience for those who enjoy the sense of somewhere different. Some say that because this corner of Scotland was bypassed by some of the main events in Scotland's stormy history, many of its castles survived. Whatever the truth, the "Castles of Mar" - the many castles built to the west and north of Aberdeen, around the Rivers Dee and Don - represent the finest flowering of Scotland's castle building tradition. And the very best of those lie on a signposted trail, which leads to such gems as 16th -century Crathes Castle, with its painted ceilings and colourful garden, or Fyvie Castle with it superb collection of paintings.
Even in Castle Country, there are lots of other things to see: the unique pre-history park of Archaeolink, for example, near lnsch is also an interpretation point for the area's stone circles and other prehistoric sites.
Queen Victoria fell in love with the pine-clad slopes and rushing waters of the valley of the River Dee. More than a century and a half later Balmoral Castle is still a favourite holiday home of today's royal family. The royal connections can also be explored by following the Victorian Heritage Trail, which takes in the commemorative arch and a distillery at Fettercairn in the south of the area, before coming over the high-level Cairn o Mount road and dropping into Royal Deeside. The recently restored Old Royal Station in Ballater also sheds light on the royal family's affection for the area.
The malt whiskies of the valley of the River Spey are drinks of rare subtlety and lightness. Some taste a sweetness, almost a honey flavour - but it is the sort of discussion you should have round a well-stocked gantry at any one of a number of pubs while travelling in Moray. Better still, a signposted trail takes you round distilleries open for visitors to take a tour (and, usually a sample dram). There you can gain an insight into how yeast, peat-smoke, meltwater from the Cairngorms and barley from the sunny coastal plain of Moray combine in a magical way into one of Scotland's most distinctive products.
Choose this area for its sense of authenticity. This a real Scotland of fishing, farming and distilling, of true tastes and flavours and a natural, down to earth friendliness. A good choice of heritage centres and local museums, plus a wide variety of outdoor pursuits such as riding, trekking and angling (with skiing in season), mean there is certainly plenty to do.
Upcoming Events & Places to visit
The Royal Deeside Railway is a standard gauge steam and diesel hauled heritage railway, in a beautiful setting running alongside the River Dee. The line is currently about one mile long and the return journey lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. With events throughout the year, check out their website for whats going on throughout the year.
Balmoral Castle has been a royal residence since 1852. Originally a 16th-century tower house built for the powerful Gordon family, Balmoral was converted into a Scottish Baronial mansion in 1852. Only open to the public for a few months of the year so make the most of it and check out their events page...
* Spey Bay Dolphin Centre, Elgin – offering daily tours and walks.
Open 7 days a week 10.30am-5pm
* MacDuff Marine Aquarium - find out all you need to know about one of the best visitor attractions in the North East of Scotland, plan your day out and learn about some of the wonderful sea life exhibited in the award-winning Aquarium.
Open Saturday – Wednesday 11am-4pm
* 13 Moons, Drummuir, Keith – A smallholding where you can meet the animals and visit the sustainable cafe and shop offering delicious food, local produce, arts and crafts.
Call 01542 810748 for opening times.
* Cullen Bay and Bowfiddle Rock - Cullen
* Findlater Castle – Banff
* Bennachie – Aberdeenshire