Romantic Scotland

Continued (page 2 of 4)

4. Go Royal-spotting

Northeast of St. Andrews is Balmoral, where Queen Elizabeth II owns a little place—maybe a hundred rooms, hardly enough to bother dusting—set on 50,000 acres of forest. It's good to be Queen. I bought a jar of honey made by Her Majesty's bees and walked her estate, land so untouched that one of Scotland's endangered red squirrels darted in the trees, swearing at me in squirrel Gaelic. The Queen wasn't in residence at the time, but newlyweds Charles and Camilla stayed here on their honeymoon. Driving through the nearby town of Ballater, I fantasized about living here with Woman I Love. We'd buy a house with turrets, walk on autumn heather that looks like the aftermath of a paintball match between Fauvists. We'd have simple pub lunches (and gourmet dinners in the better hotels), and then a midnight snack of Hob Nobs, an addictive chocolate cookie I found at the village grocer. One must always try to sample the local delicacies, right? Which brings us to….

5. Eat Haggis

Scotland's national dish, haggis, is everywhere, but different in each place. Oh, the base is the same—sheep bits you'd rather not know about, oatmeal, and assorted spices—but the variations are endless, and it has a texture all its own, both soft and hard, smooth and flaky. I tried it and was pleasantly surprised. Really, it's so much tastier than that other Scottish delicacy, the fried Mars bar. North of Balmoral, the rivers glint like mercury and the landscape flows, changing so quickly that all I could do was gawk at vertiginous mountains with slides of heather and scatters of trees that looked like a giant threw them there. Why does Ireland get all the credit for being green? Scotland is the green of hummingbird plumage, gorse leaves, and the highlights in the eyes of Woman I Love.

6. Drink Whisky

Here's something the guidebooks fail to mention: To get to Loch Ness from Balmoral, you have to drive the Whisky Trail, the world's only heritage route dedicated to booze. Truly fine whisky, I discovered, has about 11 different levels of aftertaste, which move about your body like a slightly malfunctioning massage chair. At each distillery the routine was similar: Take the tour and end up in the tasting room, or skip the tour and go straight to the tasting room. At The Glenlivet in Speyside, a lead-crystal tumbler in hand, I felt slightly fuzzy and very Scottish. And, I figured, investing in a few bottles for later would greatly up my chances of monster-spotting.

7. Find Nessie

The Loch Ness Monster was first noticed around the 6th century; nobody much saw it again until about 1920, when it started popping up like it was being shot out of a toaster. Now Nessie has become an industry, chased by boats and tourists armed with huge telephoto lenses. The day I motored out on the loch, Nessie refused to appear, so I strolled the grounds of Castle Urquhart. Once the largest castle in the Highlands, now it's a romantic pile of loose bricks and broken walls on the shores of Loch Ness, looking more like a storybook illustration than something real. There were other people around, but it took only a second to find a quiet spot, looking over the water. It was worth being here just for the lake, the hills slanting away into the sunset beyond. I suddenly had this vision of Woman I Love as a medieval Scottish lady—all tartan and endless charisma. The monster would surely come at her call. Loch Ness is just one of a string of glacier-carved lakes cutting across the country, ensuring that you're never far away from another grand walking spot, the perfect place to hold hands and drink in the beauty of the land.

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