At the end of a long drive from Dublin, the Highlands rise gently into rugged forests, sparse heather-coated slopes and lots and lots of water as we cruise into tiny, gorgeous Aviemore.
The little Highland town is a clear tourist hub: walking aside, it promotes grass sledding year round, hosts heaps of outdoor stores and, on its single broad main street, has an abundance of long-haired brown ‘coos’ (cows), calendars full of men in only kilts, and the regular hum of a solemnly tooting bagpipe.
Much like Dublin, though, Aviemore shakes off the tourist side if you know where to look, and in doing so morphs from a purveyor of cliche to an outdoor hub that serves up a glistening family holiday.
We base ourselves in the Loch Insh Adventure Centre, where comfortable but simplistic chalets sit above a mid-sized lake, neatly converted into one of the finest adventure hubs we’ve come across, friendly and crammed with activities.
On the water, kayaks, windsurfers and dinghies all come complete with classes if needed, while the kids (and young-feeling) can swim through dark choppy lake water in thick wetsuits to something a little like a floating jungle gym, and leap from a storey up into the water, sometimes via trampolines or slides.
Back on shore, ziplines and dry slope skiing, a bar and some stunningly beautiful walks keep things moving.
Aviemore’s wider area is packed with beautiful tourist attractions. The path around Loch An Eilean in Rothiemurchus is a simple lake trail, like many Wicklow walks aside from that its forests feel untouched for centuries, the thick ground growth giving the place lush colour and a timeless feel that Wicklow’s cultivated forests can lack.
There’s the bizarrely named Landmark Forest Adventure Park, which combines the same beautiful forestry with a theme park full of dinosaurs, surreal visual effects, climbing, and a maze that can drop buckets of water on the unsuspecting. The Highland Wildlife Park has the local stuff, including huge deer and Highland wild cats, but also, bizarrely, polar bears and camels.
Then there’s the true sense of local culture that comes with catching shinty practise, or dropping in on one of the many Highland Games, where massive men in kilts launch the caber, naturally, but there’s also fairground style attractions, whisky, haggis, and even space to participate in some of the running events. The Games are a whole day out, packed to the rafters, and set aside a sense of cliche that might otherwise reside as it’s clear they’re taken fantastically seriously by hulking competitors.
The beauty of the Highlands is pervasive, but also incredibly well maintained. Rarely does the environment outside of Aviemore’s towns feel unnatural, and we often found tiny single-lane bridges and winding trails preferred to the impact of bigger construction. In places the houses seem to almost melt into their surroundings, while cafes doubled as art spaces, huge technicoloured ‘coos’ (a wide-reaching art project) pop up outside stations with steam engines, and yarn bombing seems to be something of a local habit.
Of course, the main downfall for such a trip is the driving, but we found it neatly broken up with stunning sights.
Fresh from the Larne to Cairnryan ferry, we discover Culzean Castle, towering over the Atlantic, its massive grounds leading down to beaches, and full of walks, play parks, statues and local ice cream.
Whisky distilleries never felt more than a few kms away, while road trips wound past lochs, through moist foggy valleys, past winter ski resorts and into spaces so sparse they make Kerry feel like a dense hub of cluttered villages.
The Highlands are perhaps not for everyone. They certainly require enthusiasm for the outdoors. They are, however, absolutely crammed with lush green paths, deep black lakes and more activities than it would be possible to do in months. A place of peace, a holiday spot to absorb into your very pores.