This is nectar!” bellows Fergus, a burly, red-bearded Scot with an accent as thick and lyrical as the single malt whisky we’re sipping from shot glasses. “A baby could drink this without choking.”
The 12-year-old Deanston is indeed delicious; aged in ex-bourbon barrels it has a gentle warmth and notes of sweet, honeyed fruit. “Enjoy your food,” Fergus continues, as plates of salmon plucked from Loch Fyne are placed in front of us. “To heck with the weather; it is what it is.” Sixty-something Fergus and his son Gregor sit before us in Highland dress: kilts, sporrans, sgian dubh (small knives worn tucked into socks) and ghillies (thick-soled shoes).
Fergus – founder of the Kinlochard Ceilidh Band – rests a guitar on his knee, while Gregor tackles Great Highland bagpipes. In between rounds of poetry – Gregor has been awarded for his readings of Robert Burns – the pair regale us with songs, their booming voices pounding the walls of the historic barn they’ve transformed into a dining room.
Scottish hero Rob Roy MacGregor came of age in the same building in October 1689, just three months after he fought on the Jacobite side at the Battle of Killiecrankie. The rest of the Ledard Farm property is equally historic. Dating back to 1474, it was mentioned in the minutes of the Privy Council of the Kings of Scotland, and served as an annual gathering place for Clan Gregor for more than 500 years.
Today it’s a working sheep farm, home to the Wood family (for three generations), their eight sheepdogs and hundreds of thick-wooled sheep. They graze, oblivious to the drizzle, in velvet-like green fields that stretch down to the banks of Loch Ard where, earlier, we spotted red squirrels scampering up autumnal trees.
Part of the 8000-hectare Trossachs National Park – the first of its kind in Scotland – and in the foothills of the stunning Ben Lomond and Ben Venue hills, the property is the final Be My Guest experience on our eight-day journey across England and Scotland.
I’m here with family-owned travel company Trafalgar which, in many ways, has redefined the touring experience in recent years. Subtle differences such as “travel directors” and “local experts” leading trips rather than “guides”, and offering “guided holidays” rather than “tours” set the company apart. These titles are not merely a matter of semantics, as I soon find out. But the real gamechanger – and certainly one that other tour companies have been quick to replicate – is the insider moments that have become part of every Trafalgar programme, like the one we’ve just enjoyed with the Wood family: genuine experiences that offer insights into a destination and its people that you simply would not have access to otherwise. A team of Trafalgar scouts travel the world looking for interesting people to partner with so guests can, in the words of Fergus, “get under the skin of a place”.
“There’s no set recipe,” our travel director Gary tells us. “We just look for things that feel right.” It’s a painstaking process, but it couldn’t have been more successful.
THE REAL DEAL
Our experience begins in London before moving on to Liverpool, where we meet perhaps the most knowledgeable “local expert” Trafalgar could hope to find. Philip Coppell has not only rubbed shoulders with Liverpool’s most famous residents, but was – and still is – friends with members of The Beatles (his Master’s thesis was also dedicated to the band, and he happens to be a handy travel photographer to boot).
Much of the sprawling port city is a shrine to the Fab Four. Many would have Disney-fied the city, transforming attractions into a sort of theme park. But not Liverpool. What remains of Strawberry Field is a graffiti-covered sign on a gate; Penny Lane is a dingy row of terraced houses; the Cavern Club, where Coppell takes us for a pint, has a sticky floor from spilt beer.
The city still has a raffish feel to it, no doubt magnified by the perennially grey skies. Still, its architectural bravado, manifested over hundreds of years in soaring cathedrals, Victorian mansions and ambitious skyscrapers, seems to show best against a gloomy backdrop. The rain continues all the way to York, where we’re whisked into the warmth of Whitwell Hall. A hauntingly beautiful Georgian gothic mansion set on 10 hectares, the building is home to the Bell family, who open their doors to us for another Be My Guest experience. Wine in hand, we sink into overstuffed sofas by the fire, dwarfed by the high ceilings and maroon-hued walls lined with glossy oil paintings, gilded mirrors and oversized vases stuffed with peacock feathers.
The aroma of roast pork and vegetables soon fills the room, and the clatter of mismatched plates and heavy silver cutlery signals dinner is ready. Set on the confluence of the Ouse and Foss rivers, York’s history is slightly overwhelming and somewhat intimidating. It has been the backdrop to major political events in England throughout much of its two millennia of existence, and York Minster and Clifford’s Tower are just two of the jaw-dropping reminders of this heritage. York Minster is particularly fascinating – it’s the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and adorned with intricate rose windows and gilded canopies.
Day one of our experience with Trafalgar begins in London: it’s suitably grim and grey, and a great day for warming mugs of mulled wine, which we pick up as we explore London’s East End on foot. We’re guided by Patricia Holmes, a destination marketing specialist-turned-Trafalgar local expert who knows every hidden laneway in the city. The area’s regeneration over the last 20 years has seen printworks and panelbeaters move out and tech firms and graffiti artists move in, alongside new bars, galleries and independent boutiques. The region received an added boost thanks to the Olympic Games in 2012, with new hotels signing leases, street markets expanding and boutique ateliers purchasing space. A case in point, we pass an exclusive parfumerie, a jazz bar with more than 1000 whiskies on the menu and a pub that hosts nightly fashion shows. There’s street art by Banksy, boutique breweries, and Boxpark, where shipping containers have been turned into cafes and shops. It’s an intoxicating blend of cultures and fashions, cuisines and customs. And it’s the perfect entrée to an expedition around the UK. visitbritain.com.
A joint initiative between The Travel Corporation’s family of brands, of which Trafalgar is one, The TreadRight Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation aimed at encouraging sustainable tourism around the world.
To date, TreadRight has donated more than US$2.5 million to supporting sustainable tourism development through conservation, leadership and support for communities. In previous years, projects in the UK have targeted Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the White Cliffs of Dover and Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. On our trip we stop at the latter, a former textile mill of the Industrial Revolution and now a museum.
Trafalgar has been integral to the regeneration of the mill, which now sees more than 130,000 visitors every year.
Some 150 kilometres north in the market town of Alnwick, we find history of another kind. Recognisable as the location where young wizards and witches had their first broomstick lesson in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Alnwick Castle was built following the Norman conquest and is still the seat of the Duke of Northumberland.
It has been remodelled over the years but hasn’t lost any of its charm and is still decked out with one of the country’s finest private art collections. Much newer is the nearby Alnwick Garden, which reportedly cost some $76 million to carve out of the countryside. The gardens were designed so that no matter what the season, there is something to look at.
The Cherry Orchard is a patchwork of more than 300 Tai Haku cherry trees. For something a little different, the Poison Garden highlights around 100 plants of varying deadliness; meanwhile riotous colours mark the Rose Garden, where we discover fields laced with thousands of David Austin roses.
Visiting Alnwick Castle is a fitting prelude to Edinburgh, our first stop in Scotland. From volcanic crags and charming narrow lanes to the massive stone fortiﬁcations of Edinburgh Castle (which we tour with one of Trafalgar’s local experts), the city maintains an ancient quality. The medieval Old Town’s hilly, cobblestoned streets are home to age-old stores and taverns that open as soon as breakfast plates have been cleared, while the 18th-century New Town’s modern shops, Georgian architecture, and pleasant squares are paving the way for vibrant new neighbourhoods.
It’s no wonder the city provided inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking series – the author used to spend weeks writing in The Elephant House coffee shop.
That’s The Spirit
As captivating as the capital is, nothing prepares you for the drama of the Scottish countryside. On our way to Glengoyne, we cut through endless emerald fields draped in a moody grey sky that teases us with speckles of sunlight. Every road is scenic, every whiff of unpolluted air is the perfect antidote to years of city grime. Gridlock is three cars in a row, waiting for sheep to pass. It’s an idyllic backdrop for the distillery, where the house motto is “keep it nice and slow”.
It’s barely 11 in the morning when we’re handed our first tumbler of 12-year-old single malt, deliciously golden with hints of lemon zest and toffee apples. “Beginning your day with a drop of this spectacular spirit just adds a sparkle to everything else,” says our host at the property, which has been operating as a distillery since 1833. Glengoyne is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful whisky estates in the country. It may be the 15-year-old single malt talking, but I’d have to agree.
Situated in a wooded valley in the southern Highlands, close to a small river that flows into Loch Lomond, the distillery’s whitewashed buildings see the production of more than a million litres of pure spirit every year. In the 19th century, there were close to 20 distilleries (many of them illegal) in this part of Scotland; today, Glengoyne is one of the few remaining. Two hours of whisky tasting later, we get on the coach any way we can – there are no neat queues and Gary the travel director politely looks the other way when I stumble up the stairs. “Travel is all about broadening horizons and doing things you wouldn’t normally do,” he says as the Trafalgar coach makes its way out of the distillery en route for the Wood family’s Ledard Farm for lunch.
With a bottle of Scotland’s slowest-distilled whisky tucked under my seat, hot-smoked salmon and Burns’ poetry around the corner, and the drama of a Highland storm unfolding in front of me, I’m pretty happy with my current horizon.
Trafalgar’s guided holidays cover the world, with a huge choice of destinations and types of holiday on offer. Trips are extremely comfortable, with guests transported in plush coaches with extra leg space and wi-fi. A travel director tours on the coach with you for the entire trip, ensuring a smooth connection between the transport and local experts on the ground, as well as providing insightful commentary along the way. The 15-day Brittania trip takes you through England, Scotland and Wales. Destinations en route include Bath, Glasgow, the Isle of Skye, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh.