Holidaying at home isn’t all midges and battlefields. Kirstin Innes wanders off the tourist trail and discovers some of Scotland’s far less typical attractions
See opera by boat
The undoubted highlight of Highland 2007 is St Kilda: A European Opera (main picture), a multi-artform performance over the summer solstice telling the story of the remote, abandoned island, including film, opera, and aerial ballet suspended over cliffs. It’s going to be simultaneously broadcast in five European cities and performed completely in Gaelic, and represents a huge artistic and imaginative undertaking for the Scottish arts scene. The Scottish leg of the performance is not, as rumoured, going to happen on St Kilda itself, but in the slightly more accessible Stornaway. You still need a boat to get there, though.
St Kilda: A European Opera takes place on Sat 23 Jun. For more information see www.stkilda.eu
Surfing in Thurso
You wouldn’t necessarily expect to encounter sun-bleached surf dudes hanging out in the teashops and quiet streets of one of mainland Scotland’s most northerly towns, but the barrelling waves crashing onto Thurso’s East Beach, among the fastest in the world, have engendered a small, dedicated, friendly surfing community. Surfers from all over the world visit for the quiet coastlines, which have got busier since the town started hosting the O’Neill Highland Open two years ago, although the surfers co-exist happily with the local community. Hawaiian shorts aren’t going to cut it in the fashion stakes, though - the water temperature never makes it much above 10°C.
Lessons at the North Experience Surf School (NESS): 01847 892 500
Have a spontaneous folk encounter
Singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean may no longer be at the helm, but the atmosphere in the bar of the Taybank Hotel in Dunkeld (formerly MacLean’s Real Music Bar) is still potent. It’s a cosy, real-ales-and-fireplaces sort of place, which regularly attracts the cream of Scottish folk musicians. However, MacLean’s idea in founding the place, which the new management still adhere to, was to create ‘Scotland’s Musical Meeting Place’, an environment for spontaneous jam sessions which pulls in musicians and other interested parties from all over the world. Everyone from Elaine C Smith to Jerry Springer has been sighted there, and quite frankly, that’s the sort of party we don’t want to miss out on.
Taybank Hotel, Dunkeld. www.taybank.com, or 01350 727 340 for more information
Stay in a wigwam
Nursing a long-suppressed politically incorrect desire to play cowboys and Native Americans? Clusters of wigwams are popping up all over the country, offering ramblers and revellers alike low-tech accommodation without the need to lug a tent about. The largest settlement is still at Strathfillan near Crianlarich, providing easy access to a number of Munros, but a recent village at Mortonhall in Edinburgh is marketing itself as alternative Festival accommodation.
See www.sac.ac.uk/wigwams for further information
Eat in a treehouse
Cleverly combining childhood nostalgia with a very grown up five star dining experience, the Lodge complex, by the side of Loch Goil, offers a complete escape from the rat race only an hour’s drive from Glasgow. The main attraction of the complex is of course the gigantic treehouse-cum-dining room, available for lunches during the week, but private parties are encouraged to rent out the whole complex over the weekend, spending the night in the neighbouring Edwardian villages or the romantic lochside summerhouse.
The Lodge, Loch Goil. www.thelodge-scotland.com
Sunbathe under a palm tree
Plockton, a compact coastal village overlooking Skye, is jammed right on the Gulf Stream, allowing varieties of tropical flora seldom seen outside the Botanical Gardens to flourish. It can be quite a surreal place to spend time in, particularly when the lights and sounds of the Skye Music Festival drift over the water. Plockton is currently best-known as the home of Hamish Macbeth, but the village also deputised for creepy, culty Summerisle in the original film version of The Wickerman. Don’t try and recreate the al fresco fornication scene if you want to stay on good terms with the locals.
Learn the secrets of a masterchef
Okay, you probably won’t get a one-to-one with the man himself unless you’re feeling particularly flush, but a day-long workshop at the Nick Nairn Cook School will leave you chopping, slicing and sautéing with Michelin-worthy flair. After a morning of demonstrations and taste sessions, pupils try their hands at starters, which they cook and eat themselves with some very carefully selected wine. The process is then repeated for the main course, by which point everything could have gone a bit Keith Floyd. Do be careful with that cleaver. Those wanting to go the whole (spit-roasted?) hog can make a night of it at the nearby Lake Hotel in Port of Menteith - the award-winning kitchen is an occasional haunt for the chefs from the Cook School and Nairn himself.
Nick Nairn Cook School, Port Of Menteith. www.nicknairncookschool.com
Go eyeball-to-eyeball with a red squirrel
Oh, stop screaming that you wanna go faster; the original Scottish theme park is all about natural thrills. The Landmark Forest Adventure Park, which started out as a red squirrel sanctuary in the great Scottish pine forest, has been around for almost 40 years now. The adventure playground and grimly-signposted maze have been favourites of generations of ankle-biters, but the 7m high Treetop Trail and the new white-knuckle plummet of the Skydive (pictured above) keeps things interesting for older thrill-seekers too.
Landmark Forest Adventure Park, Carrbridge, Inverness-shire. www.landmark-centre.co.uk
Pay homage to Barbara Cartland
Princess Diana’s late, lamented step-grandmother used to keep a hunting lodge near Helmsdale, where her biggest fan, Nancy Sinclair, opened her kitsch fantasia of a restaurant in tribute to her idol. The walls of La Mirage, which has variously laid claim to the best fish and chips in the Highlands, Scotland and Europe, are bedecked with pictures of Sinclair and Cartland, and the brilliant, crazily cluttered décor features a pufferfish lamp, extensive use of pink neon and a dummy dressed as an American policeman. Of course it does.