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George Mitchell: Holidays in Scotland are great, but why are they so expensive?

One of the many impressive houses in Carrbridge.
One of the many impressive houses in Carrbridge.

I get it why our governments have been, for some months, encouraging us to holiday at home, or staycation as it’s now called.

We do really have a lot to offer, even if the weather is not exactly tropical. Mind you, if you stick to the old saying, you can’t go wrong: “If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, just wait 10 minutes.”

To be fair, the weather was fine on my recent trip to the Highlands; we had sun, rain, mist and cloud, all mixed together. Classic summer weather!

One gripe though, it’s all just too expensive. Maybe that’s unfair of me. I’m probably too used to booking accommodation and paying for food in far-flung off-grid places around the globe. Still, I think the average family would balk at the cost of a week or two in our country as opposed to a package holiday in a European resort.

Royal Deeside and the surrounding Highlands are my favourite places in Scotland. I never tire of going there.

So, off Lina and I headed. We drove cross country out past Ballater and of course I simply had to drive the classic A939 road. I did it last two years ago, and it never fails to take my breath away.

George is a big fan of the Lecht Road.

The A939, also known as the Lecht Road, was built in 1745 and is just under 60 miles long. At its highest point at just over 2,000ft, with scenery to die for, it’s an awesome drive of bumps and twists and turns. Do it. But take your time, stop, get out, take photos, and just breath it in.

Ending up in Tomintoul, we walked its charming streets and quaint square. I felt the modern hectic world melt away. It was good for the soul.

We based ourselves in the small village of Carrbridge. Famous for probably two things, firstly it’s where the world’s porridge-making championships take place. Of course, there’s also the old packhorse bridge itself. Dating back to 1717 it is the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands, so I had to include a photo of it. Stunning, isn’t it?

The iconic bridge.

I love Carrbridge, it’s still genuinely authentic. Not spoiled with mass tourism that I’m sorry to say Aviemore is. That’s my view anyway.

Early morning, I wandered down to the solitary shop in the village and bought my P&J. Walking back, few were up yet. I stopped and took photos of the old original houses. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” I said to myself.

There was one wee cottage with a beautiful garden full of lavender and numerous other plants. It looked like a scene from a bygone era. I imagined Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple with a big hat on, out tending her flowerbeds and offering a jolly “Good morning!” as she waved at me before going back to her chores.

There are numerous options for accommodation in Carrbridge and all around. We opted for An-Sealgair B&B. The owners Scott and Jadine could not have been more helpful. A comfy bed, peace and quiet, a great cooked breakfast which we consumed sitting out at the back garden patio, it was bliss. Jasper the cat even joined us in the evenings for serious attention from Lina.

When we arrived and Scott started to tell me about the internet password, I said “no thanks”. I went off-grid for three days – no news, no emails, no writing.

Fancy a trip away in this neck of the woods? I highly recommend Carrbridge as a base, and Scott and Jadine’s B&B. You’ll find them on www.booking.com

The wonderful bonus of staying at our B&B was the following. Open the gate in the small back garden and you step out directly into an ancient Highland forest.

Picturesque Glencharnoch Wood is ‘heaven to walk through’.

Owned by the Woodland Trust, Glencharnoch Wood is a gem. Stuffed full of pine and birch, rowan and juniper, all manner of birds and deer, and most importantly – no people and no plastic waste. It was heaven to walk through, which I did twice each day.

The morning walk is always the best. By 7am I was up, and after a quick brew, stepped out the gate and into the forest. It was just me and Mother Nature.

Spiders’ webs on bushes glistened in the morning dew as deer went about their business. Sammy would love it here, I thought to myself.

The towns and villages in this area I know well, for I used to come here as child. My Uncle Brian built a house not far from Nethy Bridge. I used to love spending a week here in the summer, running around the fields carefree. I drove past and was happy to see the house still standing.

First up, a visit to Grantown on Spey. What a charming main street it has. Steeped in royal history, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed at the Grant Arms Hotel, presumably on their way to Balmoral.

Victoria’s actual written diary is on display inside the hotel. Dated September 4 1860 she goes on to explain in detail her bed, her meal which she enjoyed and even mentions Albert playing patience after the meal. Fascinating stuff.

Later, I drove into Nethy and parked the car outside the majestic Victorian Nethy Bridge Hotel. I still can’t get my head round this place. Literally in the middle of nowhere, Nethy is, or would have originally been, a one-road hamlet, so what on earth possessed them to build a grandiose hotel there in 1897?

Originally a droving inn from the 1600s, Mrs Fotheringham demolished it and built this stunning masterpiece. What a formidable woman, what a vision, and all at a time before women even had the vote.

Through Boat of Garten, it was good to see the small village shop still open, life returning to normal after lockdowns. On we drove when suddenly I said to Lina: “Look down there, a Harry Potter train!”

The Strathspey Railway offers passengers the chance to step back in time.

And it really did look like a Harry Potter train meandering through the countryside with steam puffing out the front. I drove down a small road just as the train pulled into Broomhill station.

As a result of the notorious Beeching cuts in the 1960s, many services were slashed, lines removed and even bridges and embankments destroyed. A disastrous policy in my view.

The Strathspey Railway Company was born in 1971. Its dream was to run services once again between Aviemore and Grantown. Through grit and determination these dedicated volunteers made that dream a reality. By 1978, steam train were once again running between Aviemore and the Boat. By 2002, it had been extended to Broomhill, which is nine-and-a-half miles of line. They are still working to extend it further. Please go and support them and take a ride.

We couldn’t get a ticket that day for all services were fully booked. Good to hear actually.

The trains are sublimely old-world, the stations like out of an Agatha Christie novel. I can’t recommend enough a visit to the Strathspey Railway. Well done to all involved, your efforts are worth it. I salute you.

George says the Strathspey Railway is a must-see attraction.

After being out and about all day, late every afternoon, we walked through Glencharnoch Wood behind our house and ended up at the Cairn Hotel in the village where we enjoyed a thoroughly deserved pint before a slow stroll back and out on to the patio again. By the time it got dark and not a sound was to be heard, I was asleep by 9pm.

On our last day, I did consider taking the quicker drive back home via the A96, but being such a beautiful day, we did the A939 again.

Slowly I drove and stopped as requested as Lina got out and took another million photos. I didn’t mind, I just marvelled at the scenery near the top of the Lecht, which although stunning, always looks oddly weird when not covered in snow.

With so much more to see, I’ll be back yet again in hopefully the not-too-distant future.

So, I’ve done my bit, albeit little bit for the local economy. I just wish that staycations in our beautiful wee country was cheaper all round.

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