No Fly Holidays are getting increasingly popular as concerns around the environmental impact around flying increase. And there are a great number of options for No Fly Holidays, both in the UK and in Europe. I am going to leave aside driving and ex-UK cruise departures from the UK, and focus on a Railway adventure in the Highlands of Scotland. It has become so easy and cheap to book flights and hotels abroad that perhaps we have neglected the experiences that our own country can offer us to the point that we may well know a foreign country better than our own.

A Highlands Adventure

There is some extraordinary scenery around the world, but is there really anything to match that of the Scottish lochs and glens, castles and mountains?  And is there really any better way to see them than by train? The steam locomotives that ply these routes almost seem part of the picture postcard perfect landscapes.

You can of course undertake this trip “under your own steam” but I would recommend taking a tour in the company of others, but perhaps with a few add ons to personalise it to yourself. A tour is a great way to connect with other travellers, to share experiences and to make new friends. The tour manager will give you a greater appreciation of the culture and history in front of you, and of course it is very convenient to have everything laid out for you. 

We will start our grand tour in Inverness. Most tours will select the Inverness Palace Hotel, a comfortable and well appointed hotel on the banks of the Ness. It consists of a series of Victorian properties together with some more modern additions including a garden cottage. The Hotel provides a gym, 50 ft swimming pool, sauna, steam and spa facilities. The Restaurant and brasserie provide good local food. 

The original construction of the railway largely contributed towards Inverness becoming a popular tourist destination so it is appropriate that we start our Great Rail Journey here. It is definitely worth spending a day or two here, so perhaps arrive the day before the Tour starts. You will want to see the Castle, one of whose former residents was the Macbeth of Shakespearean renown. The tour starts in the evening with a welcome drink and meal.

Day 2 leads us to Fort William and the Jacobite Steam railway. It is an 84 mile journey of superlatives:

  • The Highest mountain, Ben Nevis
  • The most Western Mainland Railway Station, Arisaig
  • The Deepest Freshwater Loch, Loch Morar
  • Shortest River, Morar

The coaches in which we travel are ex British Rail, 1960s coaches providing First and Standard Class. First Class is recommended if you wish to book a cream tea. The seating is open rather than traditional compartments, which gives you the best views. The coaches are pulled by locomotives powerful enough to handle the heavy gradients of the West Highland line. However, there will be occasions when the Railway line will have to substitute the steam locomotive with diesel, if any of the locomotives need repair and maintenance. It does not take anything away from the viewing experience, and is unavoidable, but still will some of the holiday magic be missing. 

The route takes us over Glen Finnan, the 21 arched viaduct, which features, amongst other places, in the Harry Potter films.

We will visit the Highland Railway Museum and the peaceful village of Arisaig. The word means “The Safe Place”, although it is perhaps anything but peaceful and safe when it hosts the annual Highland Games.

The gradients and tight curves of the routes provides a terrific demonstration of the power of a steam train hard at work, the sight and sound of which will really add to the experience of this no fly holiday. 

The trip finishes at Mallaig, the busy fishing port and ferry terminal for Skye and the Small Isles. Then it is a coach transfer back to Inverness and dinner with our new found friends, perhaps a wee dram in the hotel bar. 

Quick Tip: Cream teas, consisting of chunky sandwiches, scones, jam and Scottish clotted cream can be pre-ordered but only if you are sitting in First Class. Most tours will provide for standard class, so it is definitely worth upgrading as an add on if the particular tour you are on does not provide the tea as standard. 

Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle is the main attraction of Day 3. This beautiful castle is set on an island in Loch Duin. It is 13thCentury, and has featured in many films and photo shoots, including Highlander and the James Bond film, The World is not Enough. 

After visiting the castle, we travel on the Kyle line between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh. This is a day on which you will definitely want your camera. Apart from the fantastic views of and from the Castle, the view of the lake can be stunning, with the surrounding hills and trees perfectly mirrored on the lake on a clam day. 

Lochalsh is a village that could have suffered when transport links for the ferries to Skye improved, but the village has managed to adapt and to prosper : http://www.lochalsh.co.uk

Day 4 takes us on another iconic railway, the Strathspeys Steam Railway. We take the 20 mile round trip to Aviemore, through the Cairngorms and alongside the River Spey to the station at Boat of Garton, an original 1904 station. In summer the vivid colours of the fields is so striking that you will find yourself stunned by the simple beauty of the nature around you. In the afternoon, you will travel by coach to the site of The Battle of Culloden, the last major battle to be fought on British soil in 1746. 

Back to the hotel for a final meal and  probably more whisky tasting, and effectively the end of the tour, although officially it ends tomorrow. 

Conclusion

What will you get out of this No Fly holiday? The Scottish Highlands were named in Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” 2019. Obviously this is not the place to come if you are looking for sandy beaches and blisteringly hot weather, in spite of any global warming caused by flight related travel.  But if you are looking for centuries of culture, history, traditions and iconic locations and scenery to enjoy, the Highlands are on your doorstep. It is perfect for photographers, walkers, and those who just want to take life a little slower. It is a great option for those who want to take a No Fly holiday for whatever reason

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