Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Magical Skye

I visited the Isle of Skye and wrote this article for the online publication 50 Connect in September 2011. I heartily recommend a visit to the far-flung enchanting island.

If retirement has given you the chance to indulge in  short breaks and you'd like a change of pace, visit the unspoilt beauty and savour peaceful village life on the Isle of Skye.
As an over 50s traveller, I was happy to take this assignment, my trip was just six days but it felt like I’d been away from the hustle and bustle for ages, such is the soothing effect of this magical, remote island off the coast of Scotland.   

Relaxing East Coast Trains

Drizzly and overcast but still warm in early September, I travelled in style from London to Edinburgh by rail with East Coast Trains. The First Class service was impeccable. I snacked on roasted vegetable and pesto sandwiches and lunched on red onion and goat’s cheese tart. There was also a wide selection of spirits, wines and soft drinks.
The journey was quiet and comfortable, gazing at the picturesque countryside and relishing my latest novel, One Day, aptly set in a variety of locations in Edinburgh and London; to add another dimension of intrigue to my foray up north. Other passengers worked on their laptops, connecting to onboard Wi-Fi.
I left at 11 am and the smooth journey took just four and a half hours; sheer pleasure all the way!
Advance return fares can be booked online and start from £33 Standard Class or £95 First Class. Book via, call 08457 225225 or visit any staffed station.

Ten Hill Place, EdinburghInspiring Edinburgh

Arriving at Waverley station in Edinburgh, I jumped in a cab and zapped straight to my hotel for a warm welcome.
The impressive Ten Hill Place hotel is unique because it is owned by the Royal College of Surgeons and all profits go to the college to train surgeons. In fact, the prestigious college has 18,000 Fellows throughout the world. The Georgian building was converted into 78 rooms in 2006 and a new restaurant wing added. The college operates three other venues including a conference centre in a converted church.
Understandably, Ten Hill Place is popular with visiting doctors but the general public also appreciate the medical connection. The Medical Museum is just around the corner and boasts some mind-boggling exhibitions including a history of surgery.
Ten Hill Place is an ideal base for a short city break or, as I did, use it as a jump off for a longer tour. It is a comfortable and welcoming hotel and has a range of excellent facilities that are sure to appeal to older tourists. 
Edinburgh is known as the ‘walkable city’ and this quiet, secluded hotel is just five minutes from the High Street and countless delightful restaurants.
The National Museum is recently refurbished at a cost of millions and three years of intensive labour and makes for a fascinating visit.
The Festival Theatre is staging the classic musical, The King and I throughout the Christmas season and of course Edinburgh is renowned for its Comedy Festival in August as well as the International Book Festival and many others.
And the Great Outdoors are as close as climbing Arthur’s Seat with panoramic views across the city to the shores of Leith. outlines the city’s countless enticing attractions including the famous castle that dominates the city, the delightful zoo, the Writers’ Museum and the Scotch Whisky Experience! There’s something for all tastes! 
SkylineI stayed in a luxurious, spacious skyline room on the fifth floor and dined at the modern restaurant, which was happy to pander to my fussy vegetarian tastes. 
The hotel currently has a special offer of Dinner, Bed and Breakfast for a couple for just £109. Now that is a canny price in anyone’s accent! 

Rabbie’s Inimitable Tours

The next morning I joined a group of excited travellers for a tour led by the witty and entertaining Euan, sporting ginger hair, cheeky brogue and essential kilt. He is the real deal!
There are many rivals, however Rabbie’s Small Group Tours (named after revered poet Robert Burns) is the original and the best. Started by enterprising Robin Worsnop in 1993, the company has expanded to a fleet of 27 mini-coaches and along the way scooped an impressive array of awards for innovation, outstanding service and dedication to conserving the pristine environment. Rabbie’s is the only bus tour company in Scotland with a Gold Green Tourism Business award. 
Rabbies Tour guideDriver/tour guides are handpicked for their genuine personalities and pride and passion for all things Scottish. What Euan didn’t know about Scottish history and the landscape wasn’t worth knowing! 
I am a big fan of small group tours as there are many benefits of travelling this way. If you and your spouse were to drive yourself around, you would see some pleasant scenery but completely miss the richness of the stories embedded in those hills. Euan’s fascinating commentary vividly brought to life Celtic history and culture wrapped up in delightful humour and charm.
Travelling with a small group, rather than by yourself or with a large group, allows you to make new friends. The boutique scale is less cumbersome and more personal and it’s easier to chat with other passengers. 
Just 15 onboard proved an ideal number (the luxury vehicle holds a maximum of 16). Our group included four intrepid senior ladies from Alabama, a father and daughter from Oklahoma, a mum and dad and son from India, two pretty girls from Shanghai and us four Aussie chicks. 
Diane Priestley and CathyThe minute I stepped foot on the mini-coach, Cathy introduced herself as a fellow Aussie and we sat together and nattered like old mates and then discovered two other single girls who also hailed from Brisbane who joined us for meals! 
There’s another advantage to the small group tour over self-drive holidays. It completely removes the stress and conflict of driving and navigating your way around a strange country. You can sit back and relax and absorb the sights and commentary without a worry in the world. 
The first day we travelled through the Highlands, absorbing the beauty of the Nevis Range, the moors carpeted in purple heath, tranquil lochs and of course famous castles! 
Without giving away Euan’s colourful stories I can tell you I now know all about how Edinburgh evolved from a disease-ridden town to the dynamic, enlightened city it is today. I learned all about the legendary William Wallace, the Battle of Bannockburn, the mighty clans, Bonnie Prince Charlie and much more. It was captivating!
We stopped for lunch at the quaint village of Fort William, known as the Outdoor Capital of the world, for it’s rock climbing, fishing, snow skiing and extreme sports.
Bonnie boatLate afternoon we crossed the bridge and arrived at the misty Isle of Skye, mesmerised by sleepy Portree harbour and Euan dropped us at our B & Bs before we met up at the local pub for a feast of fresh mussels and rousing traditional music.
Friday was our main day for touring the island and I was privileged to sit up front as “co-pilot” with Euan (actually I just pestered him with endless questions!) as we toured the dramatic Trotternish Peninsula. 
On the map, the island is shaped like the claw of a lobster and just 50 miles long dotted with remote villages of close knit communities, a population of just 7000, steeped in folklore about fairies, giants and mythical creatures explaining the mysterious features of the landscape. 
Wildlife is abundant. Keep your eyes peeled for sea eagles with a massive wing span of 10 feet, playful otters, languishing seals and even dolphins and whales can be spotted in the Sea of the Hebrides. Wild deer, shaggy Highland cattle and quirky black-faced sheep graze the lush fields.
DunveganWe explored the fascinating museum of crofters thatched roof cottages, and the impressive Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan.
That night in the Isles Inn, I tried a vegetarian version of Haggis while the other brave Aussies sampled the real thing (and said the favourite Scottish dish was truly delicious!).
On Saturday my group headed back to Edinburgh while I stayed on to witness the arrival in Portree Harbour of the Bonnie Boat, decorated with 40,000 glittering mirrored tiles! The spectacular work of art moored in the harbour to transmit Celestial Radio is part of the Year Of Scotland’s Islands, which sees more than 300 events taking place in 42 isles until March 2012. 
Events celebrate the unique beauty, heritage and culture of the islands and are listed on, an absolute must for anyone interested in Scottish culture. The Scottish International Storytelling Festival on several islands in October, the Nighttime Tour of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in November and the Up Helly Aa festival at Shetland in January are unmissable highlights!
Outside TrackI was delighted to experience a concert by refreshing young band, The Outside Track and Gaelic singer Christine Primrose at the Aros centre as part of the Blas festival, a highlight of the Year of Scotland’s Islands celebrations.
Outside Track comprise four accomplished female musicians on harp, fiddle, accordian, flute and vocals and one talented Irish lad on guitar who mesh together Scottish, Irish and Canadian music and dance. The energetic group has performed around the world to enthusiastic acclaim. 
I met with Ailie, Mairi, Cilian, Norah and Fiona before the gig and chatted about how they all met at Limerick University and were united in their love of the traditional music of their homelands and brought their songs together in a unique fusion. Check them out on The Outside Track.
For my three nights on Skye, I stayed at Sandra’s cosy B & B at Stormyhill Road and enjoyed her hearty home cooked breakfasts and warm hospitality. 
I joined the effervescent Audrey on the return trip to Edinburgh and she regaled her passengers with intriguing tales of King Robert The Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots (who lost her head in a very awkward manner!) and we explored the fascinating Eilean Donan Castle at Lochalsh.
Rabbie’s offer a vast range of small group tours in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England, from one day to 16 days, priced from just £23 per adult. For a fascinating short break, Rabbie’s Small Group Tours is indeed the real deal! To book a trip,

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