Given that A-roads in Scotland can be so narrow they have passing places, you can imagine just how rustic B-roads there can get.
I turned onto one in the Cairngorms National Park on a Friday evening recently and didn’t see another car for half an hour – and passed through woodlands so ancient and pristine I wondered if we’d been warped into Middle-earth.
Our destination was Banchory Lodge, a hotel that lies just beyond the park’s eastern border in a location that entices on multiple levels.
Banchory Lodge lies by the River Dee, just beyond the eastern border of the Cairngorms National Park
Firstly, the Georgian lodge sits, enchantingly, on the banks of the River Dee, facing away from the town of Banchory and out towards rolling forested hills.
Then there’s the proximity of a host of sensational sights.
For starters, Balmoral – the Scottish home to the Royal Family – is just 45 minutes by car to the west within Cairngorms National Park. My partner, three-year-old daughter and I spent a wonderful afternoon there, gallivanting around the surrounding woodland – where we spotted a red squirrel – ambling through the fine vegetable garden, which was almost cartoonishly bountiful, and peeking inside the understated Castle Ballroom, the only room you’re allowed inside.
Ted’s room was a ‘Top Notch Terrace Room’ (pictured) – ‘and there was much that was indeed top-notch’
The terrace of the Sitooterie, which unfortunately partially blocks the river view from the ground-floor ‘Top Notch’ rooms
Ted enjoyed ‘gold-standard fish and chips’ in Banchory Lodge’s restaurant
Balmoral – the Scottish home to the Royal Family – is just 45 minutes by car to the west of Banchory Lodge
THE JOYS OF THE TRAIN JOURNEY TO SCOTLAND
The most thrilling way of reaching Scotland from England is undoubtedly by train. Our journey to Banchory Lodge begins with the 9am LNER Azuma from Kings Cross to Edinburgh.
The Royal Border Bridge at Berwick-upon-Tweed
On the way we take in some incredible sights from our seats – the impressive York station, the magnificent Durham Cathedral and the striking Angel of North, just before Newcastle. The arrival into the station there is breathtaking, with amazing views of the city and the River Tyne as the train crosses the mighty King Edward VII Bridge.
An LNER Azuma passes Alnmouth
As the train hurtles further north, we gaze at the coast at Alnmouth, spot Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island and are then hypnotised as the train crosses the Royal Border Bridge (which is actually three miles south of the border) before pulling up in Berwick-upon-Tweed station. After this, amazing views of rugged coastline keep us transfixed before the train arrives at Edinburgh Waverley. Six minutes early.
We reach Perth (where we pick up a hire car) via a ScotRail HST service via the showstopping Forth Bridge. Unforgettable. On the way home, we catch a direct LNER Azuma service from Perth to Kings Cross, which doesn’t go along the Forth Bridge, but does skirt past the awe-inspiring Stirling Castle.
Other nearby attractions of old include Crathes Castle and the fairytale-esque Craigievar Castle.
Aberdeen, meanwhile, lies just 19 miles to the east. There you can spot dolphins from the harbour and admire the works on display at the renowned Aberdeen Art Gallery.
We fuelled up for our excursions with breakfasts at a table overlooking the river. The view was superb and the fare was hearty, though the rustic factor was lowered by the service-station-style packets of honey that accompanied the porridge.
Lunchtime fuelling came courtesy of the hotel’s outdoor dining concept – The Sitooterie – which has seating over a patio area and four funky wooden sheds for private dining experiences.
These are really good fun and the barbecue-style grills, salads, tacos and flatbreads served by the outside kitchen seriously filling.
We ordered chilled crayfish and lobster taco, ‘togarashi’ chicken, and lemon pepper mackerel with apple, cucumber and watermelon and could barely move afterwards.
Flavour-wise it was a bit two-dimensional, but there was no arguing with the price. Most of the dishes were under a tenner.
The main-building restaurant cooking in the evening impressed, though. I had gold-standard fish and chips and my partner loved her Shetland scallops. Plus, the service was impressively zippy and chirpy despite the restaurant being full to bursting.
Our room was a ‘Top Notch Terrace Room’ and there was much that was indeed top-notch. But some elements were more ‘middle to lower-middle notch’.
The first-rate bits? The extremely comfy bed, especially the luxurious pillows, the funky flamingo wallpaper, the Art Deco drinks trolley, the distressed industrial-chic TV cabinet and the sheer spaciousness of it all.
And there were plug points by the bed. Thoughtful.
But the entrance end of the room was a bit gloomy and the feng shui of the bathroom felt misaligned – while lying down the loo was in my field of vision if the bathroom door was open and in line of sight to the French doors.
The shower, meanwhile, had a slow-draining plug and while using the rain shower fixture was pleasant, the hose couldn’t muster much more than dribbling water.
The main room had a definite boutique feel to it, but the bathroom, while clean, felt bland and budget by comparison.
The website room billing also left me a tad miffed. ‘Great views of the River Dee’ are promised and French doors ‘you fling open onto your terrace straight out to the River Dee’.
Perhaps this was penned by an estate agent, because the ‘your terrace’ part of the equation was actually an open patio shared with three other rooms (though each room has its own table and chairs) and the view a hedge between this and the Sitooterie, its parasols and the cars in the car park beyond. (During our visit, it was full – Banchory Lodge is very popular.)
The Sitooterie has seating over a patio area and four funky wooden sheds (two pictured here) for private dining experiences
For unimpeded views of the bubbling torrents, book a first-floor river-view room, recommends Ted
Fairytale-esque Craigievar Castle is one of the many local attractions
Sixteenth-century Crathes Castle and its glorious grounds are mere minutes from Banchory Lodge
We could see the river, but only just.
For unimpeded views of the bubbling torrents, book a first-floor river-view room.
Still, we enjoyed our stay at a hotel that is reasonably priced and in, undoubtedly, one of the country’s most Dee-lightful spots.
Ted was hosted by Banchory Lodge, Dee Street, Banchory, AB31 5HS. Rooms start from £125. Visit banchorylodge.com for more information, call +44 1330 822 625 and email email@example.com.
Rating key: one star – poor; two stars – average; three stars – good; four stars – very good; five stars – exceptional.
LNER runs half-hourly departures between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh, in both directions, during the day. The journey from city to city takes just over four hours. When booked direct online at lner.co.uk, advance fares start from £54 return in Standard and £136 return in first class. A family return ticket costs £169 for up to two adults and four children to travel (all subject to availability).
LNER also runs one direct service a day between London and Inverness via Perth.
For information on ScotRail services visit www.scotrail.co.uk.
Booking.com offers car rental from over 160 countries in the world, with 60,000 pickup locations in the UK. For more information, visit www.booking.com.
For more on things to do in Scotland visit www.visitscotland.com.