This is an immensely popular trip and within my party alone I had 5 families with ties back to Scotland.
Day One started in the capital of Scotland; Edinburgh, with passengers arriving at the Apex Hotel which is just 100m away from Waverly Station provided you take the Carlton Road exit and enter through the lower level, unusually reception is on Level 5, in line with the main entrance. Those passengers arriving early had the chance to explore Edinburgh before we all sat down to dinner in the hotel.
The following excellent breakfast and a relaxed start on the next morning, we took the train from the cavernous Waverly Station to Glasgow Queen Street, before continuing on to Fort William via the Oban service. This is a truly spectacular ride as we cross the moors and in particular Ranoch Moor where the train stops at the Ranoch Station, which has a nice little platform café.
Our arrival at Fort William was uneventful and it took just a walk through the underpass to find our Hotel, The Alexandra. This is a traditional hotel in the centre of Fort William and has very friendly and welcoming staff.
On Day Three, we left the train behind and boarded a coach for the drive to Oban, accompanied by an informative commentary from our driver, Adrian. We learnt an awful lot about Scottish history. It was then "All Aboard" as we joined the Cal Mac Ferry which took us across the Isle of Mull and the town of Carignure. Here the coach was waiting for us for the short transfer to Duart Castle. We were warmly welcomed and spent time exploring, including the very tight spiral staircase up to the roof for views across the Isle of Mull and the surrounding waters, before a visit to the café. We then reversed our journey as then sun continued to shine, back to Fort William after some time to explore the harbour side of Oban.
Day Four was free for the group to explore the area. Some took a short bus ride to see the Caledonian Canal flight of Locks. I decided to follow the cycle / footpath 78 out of Fort William until I came to the Ben Nevis Distillery, passing the engines used for the Jacobite Steam Train on the wat. The Distillery offers a short tour and of course, the obligatory tasting.
The afternoon saw most of the group taking a fantastic cruise on Loch Linnhe, where not only did we see the salmon farm and mussel beds but also seals basking on black rock and lots of different birds. The real bonus was to see the whole of Ben Nevis not covered in any cloud, something we were told only happens on about 24 days a year.
Day Five as one of the highlights of the holiday for me as we took the Jacobite Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig. There is nothing like hearing the steam engine pull away from the platform with its six coach load as we travel along one of the most scenic lines in the UK. Some of the views were stunning in the early morning mist. The line is also well known for its link to the Harry Potter films, with the Glenfinnan Viaduct used as a location for the Hogwarts Express. Upon arrival, there was some time to wonder around the harbour in Mallaig where you can take a ferry to Skye and the small Isles and try the delicious fresh fish and chips. We then boarded the train for the return journey. Truly a memorable day. However it was not over, as on arrival in Fort William we boarded our Shiels coach with Adrian for the transfer along the A82 to Inverness. This is a fascinating journey as we stopped at the Commando Memorial before continuing along the side of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, passing over the many swing bridges, arriving at the Palace Hotel for our next 3 nights.
After several busy days many of us took it a little easier today during our second free day. I took a lovely 2 mile walk along the River Ness, through the woods and past many islands to eventually find the Botanical Gardens, which are free to visit and really fascinating. The chocolate and pear scones in the café were a real treat. A couple of passengers explored the Caledonian Canal again and even found an 88 foot scale model of the Titanic! Several passengers decided to take a cruise of Loch Ness and visit Urquhart Castle but sadly no one saw Nessie.
Day Seven was yet another fantastic scenic railway journey, this time from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh. The weather did us proud again as the projected rain did not materialise and instead we set off in early morning mist. The train was made up of just 2 carriages and we filled almost all of one of these. The views just got better and better as we progressed along the line. On arrival we have a two-hour gap before the return journey. We joined our coach and took the 15 minute drive for a photo stop at Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in the country and featured in many movies. As Skye was so close we had to take the short journey over the Skye Bridge, so that we could say we had visited. We stopped for lunch at Castle Moile and explored the ruins before visiting the onsite restaurant, where the food was excellent. The return journey was even better for views, with the mountains gleaming in the sun and the reflected Lochs.
Some may have thought that Day Eight was going to be last day and the start of our journey home, but they couldn't have been more wrong. After getting to the station we joined the Virgin East Coast class 125, "The Chieftan" for our trip to Edinburgh and 1 night at the Raddison Blu Hotel on the Royal Mile. We didn't expect the fifty minute delay right after leaving Inverness, as the signalman at Aviemore had slept in and missed his shift, however this was sorted and we were on our way. Once again we had wonderful views of the Highlands as we travelled down past heather strewn moor, we even spotted Highland Cattle (The passengers had named them hairy cows) and a couple of Red Squirrels.
Upon arrival, we had some time in Edinburgh. We were also fortunate to have the A4 Union of South Africa bring the Steam Special from Tweedbank into Edinburgh. The day finished off with a traditional Scottish evening complete with a Piper who performed the 'Ode to the Haggis' and a wonderful demonstration of Scottish dancing by a former dancing champion. Truly a memorable end to our trip to the Highlands.
Following an excellent breakfast some guests had booked an extra night in Edinburgh and went off for further sightseeing, whilst others including me, made the short 5 minute walk to Waverly Station for our journeys home after a truly wonderful visit.