Luxury meets adventure in the Scottish Highlands

A roadtrip through the Highlands helps Hollie-Rae Brader appreciate life closer to home

“Taste this,” says our guide Natasha. She plucks a leaf from the roadside and places it on the palm of my hand. Rather hesitantly, I pop it in my mouth and begin to chew. I expect a grassy flavour, but instead my mouth is watering with citrus notes. A sour lemon and rather tart flavour swirls over my tastebuds. I devour a second, and a third.

We walk a couple of metres and happen upon a nettle bush. Again we pick some leaves and taste, but this time we crush them between our glove-protected fingers first to ensure the stingers disappear. On tasting I decide raw nettles aren’t for me.

I’m on a foraging tour around the scenic, quaint and sleepy village of Braemar, home to one of Scotland’s most talked about new hotel openings, The Fife Arms.

During our walk, we munch leaf after leaf, learning about the medicinal benefits of each and how best to use it in cocktail mixology or food preparation. We also sample tiny but mightily flavoursome wild raspberries, and marvel at the numerous poisonous mushrooms we spot on our route.

After months of lockdowns and restrictions, it’s thrilling to be exploring a new place in such a primitive manner.

After a couple of hours, we head back to The Fife Arms where Natasha Lloyd, a trained medical herbalist, creates bespoke cocktails according to our preference and to match the items we’ve foraged. Being designated driver, I sip on a virgin concoction of bitters, citrus and muddled wild raspberries, while my husband sups on a unique take on a whiskey sour.

Foraging is one of a handful of tours and activities offered by the hotel. Others include picturesque picnics in the peaks around Braemar, and salmon and rainbow trout fishing in the River Dee. The vast majority of experiences here aim to get guests out exploring the natural beauty of Scotland – and that’s exactly what I was here for.

The new luxury

After suffering severe lockdown fatigue, set in by months stuck in my London flat, I felt my shoulders drop as soon as I picked up my hire car at Edinburgh airport and headed north to the Cairngorms National Park. The relief of escaping the city felt like a major milestone in an unusual year; I was finally out on the open road and ready to explore.

Views of skyscrapers and blocks of flats were replaced by vistas filled with greenery of all hues; the mountain landscape broken only by streams of spring water or bursts of thick heather, which turned darker the further north we ventured.

Twice the size of the Lake District and home to some of the highest summits in the UK, there’s plenty of exploring to be done in the Cairngorms. In the summer it’s a walker’s paradise; in the winter, skiing is a popular pastime.

Braemar has traditionally been best known for two things – being the host venue for the Royal Highland Games and its close proximity to the Queen’s Balmoral estate, which is just nine miles away.

Now, the luxury travel spotlight shines brightly on this little gem of a village – all thanks to the 2019 arrival of The Fife Arms and its exceptional art collection.

The property might have signalled the start of a new era for Scotland’s luxury hotel scene, but the country’s high-end offering is long established, with iconic, grande dame properties, luxury trains and exceptional experiences across all corners of Scotland. In fact, representation company Luxury Scotland has 30 hotel and train members, representing the best the country has to offer from the Machrie Hotel on the Isle of Islay to Glenmorangie House in the Highlands and everything else in between.

A breath of fresh air

And after sampling the new kid on the block, the next stop of my roadtrip takes me to one of Scotland’s more established and iconic institutions – Gleneagles.

This property might be known as The Glorious Playground, in part thanks to its acres of land, but also due to the activities on offer.

There’s plenty of reasons why you should concentrate your time on exploring everything the property has to offer (see review, page 76), but it would be remiss not to venture further afield to explore the impressive scenery of Perthshire.

I swap my hire car for an old-school LandRover Defender and head off with the hotel’s country sports manager Yuri Janssen to explore Glen Devon.

We pop on our wellies, grab some walking sticks and head out on a gentle hike through the landscape, trekking alongside a winding stream that leads to a waterfall.

Yuri lays out some blankets and unpacks a sumptuous lunch – the full three courses, plus a cheese board. We sit for hours enjoying a blissful September day in the sunshine, listening to the hypnotic trickling waters of the fall and watching sheep graze peacefully nearby.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath of the freshest air. I might only have travelled domestically, but I feel like I’ve ventured a million miles from home.

The age old saying ‘home is where the heart is’ rings true, particularly in times of trouble. I’ve always taken my home turf and the UK for granted, pushing it to the side in favour of exotic and far-flung adventures. But this summer, I enjoyed exploring different parts of our country – embracing a pause on international travel. I now knowto embrace what’s on our doorstep – especially beautiful Scotland.

Foraging whet my appetite; I certainly got a taste for high-end domestic travel.

What's new?

Gleneagles has announced it is to launch its first city outpost. Gleneagles Townhouse will open in Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square, in a building that has served as the Bank of Scotland’s headquarters for 200 years. It will have 33 bedrooms, each uniquely designed to give “an appreciative nod to the heritage of the building”. It will boast a restaurant and two bars, including a rooftop terrace where guests can enjoy amazing views. It will also have a members’ club, which will afford access to exclusive private spaces, a gym and wellness centre.

Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire will add a new penthouse apartment this month. The Endeavour has been created following a conversion of the entire top floor of the castle. It features four bedrooms and four bathrooms, a lounge with a dining room for up to 16 guests, a TV ‘snug’ area with seating for 12, a sauna, library and a games room. It also boasts its own private lift, full butler service and private chef.

Hollie-Rae Brader

Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.