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Scotland: Insider’s Guide

by Jonathan Epstein | October 13, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Scotland: Jonathan Epstein of Celebrated Experiences.

Trusted Travel Expert
Jonathan Epstein

If you want to be filled with wanderlust—and jealousy—follow Jonathan’s Instagram feed. Between the picture-perfect Cotswold cottages and the Michelin-starred Scottish restaurants and the grand Irish castles, you’ll wish you could hide inside Jonathan’s suitcase on his next trip. The next best thing?  Let him and his trusted deputy Nicole Baratelle arrange your itinerary, including the most scenic drives between all those fairytale properties and otherwise-hard-to-book restaurants. You’ll benefit from the duo’s close relationships with colorful hoteliers and star chefs, not to mention their friends all over the U.K. and Ireland—from whisky distillers to crystal cutters to cashmere-sweater weavers. Of course, they can also snag tickets to special events (including Wimbledon and Premier League Soccer).

Trips start at $500 per day for two travelers, or $375 for accommodations only.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Gleneagles. New ownership has invested mightily, taking what was already one of the best resorts in the world to a completely different level with fantastic service, glorious grounds, and an abundance of activities (from falconry to off-road driving to horseback riding and world-class golf). Their resort is a good value in high season, and even more so in shoulder-season months such as March, April, October, and November—especially when compared to other luxury properties around the world. Because of my relationships at the hotel, I am also able to get extra perks for my travelers, such as complimentary afternoon tea, golf, and full Scottish breakfast.

Restaurants the locals love
In Edinburgh: The Scran and Scallie is a gastropub helmed by Tom Kitchin, who earned a Michelin star for his restaurant The Kitchin. The food—including favorites such as steak pie and fish-and-chips—is fantastic, and I love the energy here.

In Glasgow: Ubiquitous Chip has been keeping Glaswegians well fed for more than 40 years. It’s always been focused on cooking Scottish cuisine really well—which means you’ll get perfectly prepared Scottish beef fillets or seared wild sea bass. I also love the garden-like space, with its greenhouse-style glass roof.

Meal worth the splurge
The 1887 Restaurant at the Torridon Resort is a classically Scottish place that marries brilliant technique and the best of local ingredients such as lamb, beef, and the freshest seafood. The Torridon is also home to one of the world’s finest and most diverse whisky bars—a perfect way to start or finish an evening in this spectacular Highlands setting, overlooking a bay that stretches to the Atlantic.

three-tiered serving platter of sandwiches and pastries for scottish afternoon tea at old course hotel

Try a traditional afternoon tea at the Old Course Hotel. Photo: Old Course Hotel

Must-have dishes
Haggis, of course! The national dish of Scotland, it’s traditionally served with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes). I’m not going to get into the details of what haggis is, but everyone who visits Scotland should taste it. It’s often offered as a starter, so you can hedge your bets with a main course such as Dover sole or venison.

Afternoon tea. It’s a tradition and a total treat. At the Old Course Hotel, the scones and finger sandwiches are served in a clubby room with sensational views of the golf course and the sea.

Prime picnic spot
The top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. You shouldn’t just gaze up at this dormant volcano in the middle of the city; you should stroll up the mount to take in the fresh air and views at the top. Alternatively, you can drive to the top, where there’s plenty of parking.

What to See and Do

Two men hiking at Coire nan Lochan, a corrie of Bidean nam Bian, Glencoe, Scottish Highlands.

Anyone passionate about scenic drives or hikes must visit the majestic Glencoe Valley. Photo: Visit Britain/Rod Edwards

Don’t miss
St. Andrews. Too many people think St. Andrews is just about golf. The city is actually so romantic that it brought Will and Kate together while they studied at its picturesque university (you may know them now as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge). St. Andrews is a charming seaside town on the North Sea, and there is so much history here, as well as many lovely independent shops. I strongly suggest strolling the ruins of St. Andrews Castle and St. Andrews Cathedral. A jog on the beach is also in order; you might recognize it from Chariots of Fire!

Glencoe. Anyone passionate about scenic drives or hikes must visit the majestic Glencoe Valley. No matter what time of year you visit, it always looks magnificent. The light hits this valley from so many different angles, and the colors are always changing. Even in pouring rain, Glencoe puts you in a trance as waterfalls cascade onto the valley floor. There is also sad history here, and our hand-picked guides do a great job of telling the tragic tale that led to the intense animosity between two Scottish clans, the Campbells and the MacDonalds.

Don’t bother
Visiting the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Don’t get me wrong: Loch Ness is absolutely beautiful. Even if you forget about the legends, it’s still worth a visit for a boat ride around the loch and a tour of the haunting ruins of Urquhart Castle. But the Loch Ness Centre is skippable unless you’re utterly obsessed with the Loch Ness monster legend.

Most underrated activity
Fine dining in Edinburgh! I know you may not come to Scotland for the food, but after a few dinners in Edinburgh, you will come back to Scotland for the creative dining experiences. There are an astounding number of great restaurants in this city of just 500,000 people, such as The Kitchin, Restaurant Martin Wishart, 21212, and Timberyard. Even if you’re not into fine dining, the pubs and casual restaurants here serve the best Scottish lamb and Angus beef, along with boatloads of seafood.

Cheap thrill
Museums in Glasgow and Edinburgh. They’re fantastic—and free! The ones that consistently earn raves are Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the many art museums.

Also, there are thousands of trails all over the country. Hikes are free, and the hiking in Scotland is spectacular!

Glen Ord, the nearest distillery to Inverness and Loch Ness in the Highlands of Scotland. Two glasses of whisky standing on an oak barrel.

There are incredible whisky experiences across Scotland. Photo: Visit Britain/Andrew Pickett

Bragging rights
There are incredible whisky experiences across the country. Yes, we can book simple tour-and-tastings, but even better to spend the day with a master distiller, blend your own single malt from various aged barrels at one of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries, or have a private tasting in the Board Room of one of the country’s most important independent bottlers and distillers of single malt whisky.

A meet-and-greet with the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray Castle. Love history? Downton Abbey? Scottish clansmen? If the Duke (who’s the chief of the Highlands’ Campbell clan) is in residence, I’ll arrange for you to tour his castle and chat over tea in one of the home’s formal entertainment rooms. The property stood in for Downton Abbey’s Duneagle Castle, where the Crawleys celebrated Christmas.

 

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Best Times to Go

May, June, July, and September. The weather is mild and even warm on occasion, and you won’t have to deal with the August crowds. May is before Scotland’s peak season (June to September) so you can find some bargains, and the hills and roadways are dotted with blooming gorse, a bright-yellow flower.

August: There are no bargains to be had in the height of peak season, but there are many great reasons this time of year is so busy: The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and various highland games among them. In the highlands, purple heather is in bloom from August to September.

April, October, and early November. April brings spring flowers, and fall brings rich autumnal colors, particularly in the Scottish highlands. Rates can be significantly lower than in the summer months.

Worst Times to Go

December, January, and February. Days are short, nights are long. In January and February, severe storms come in from the Atlantic and make things blustery. Despite that, you still might want to go for Christmas and New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay” to the Scots). The celebrations are memorable, and it feels festive to sit by a lodge’s fire with a whisky in hand.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Not planning your trip early enough. The best hotels are small—30 rooms or less—and they fill up as far as six months in advance.

Instagram Moment

If you’re lucky enough to stay at The Caledonian, Edinburgh’s five-star hotel, all you have to do is roll over in bed to get a shot of Edinburgh Castle with an envy-inducing geotag.

Perfect Souvenir

In Edinburgh: Hawick in the historic Grassmarket sells cashmere scarves and sweaters that have been made in the same mills since 1874. Order a made-to-measure tweed jacket around the corner at Walker Slater.

In Inveraray: Buy a bottle of whisky you couldn’t get at home at Loch Fyne Whiskies, which has an excellent, knowledgeable staff.

Must-Have Apps

Edinburgh Festival Fringe App provides offline listings, maps, and in-app ticket purchases for the August festival. Dozens of shows take place around the city each day, and this app will ensure you don’t miss anything.

Tipping Tip

You don’t need to tip doormen or bellmen, but you should tip drivers, guides, and caddies 10 to 15 percent. It’s not a rule, but I always leave change for barmen and housekeeping. At restaurants, tip 10 percent.

Airport Intel

I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes in an immigration line at the Edinburgh or Glasgow airport. Both are easy to navigate, too.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Layers. Lots of layers: Expect four seasons in a day.

Reviews

So many creative ideas...

Jan Heininger | December 11, 2019

A perfect combination...

Lisa Moorefield | November 23, 2019

The most valuable asset...

Mary Jane Furgason | November 11, 2019
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