The inky opaque waters of Loch Ness are as deep as the surrounding mountains are steep. The famed lake is also as dark as Scotland’s signature black pudding and the murky walls of Edinburgh Castle after sunset. But the country itself is not a dark place—far from it.
Aside from its Gothic architecture and the rich blackness of the peat that runs into the rivers, giving Scotch whisky that wonderful smoky flavor, the country is bright and verdant. Almost every vista recalls a cinematic scene—the countryside’s green-and-gold undulations are Braveheart-esque—and the people are the friendliest I’ve ever met.
I’m thankful this is true, as my mother’s people hail from Scotland. Her family name, Henderson, is derived from “the sons of Henry”—according to ScotlandsPeople Centre (scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk)—a fact my husband and I discover in Edinburgh (pronounced Edan-burah), our first stop after arriving. Tracing genealogical history has become one of the most popular travel trends in recent years, and, with records dating back to the 1400s and beyond, the Centre can help you nail down ancestral specifics, from region to clan. Records reveal that in the 1300s the Henderson clan settled in the Highlands, where we plan to go after exploring Scotland’s vibrant capital.
Our excursion soon brings us to a quaint side street on the quieter side of Edinburgh, where Twelve Picardy Place (twelvepicardyplace.com), a newly minted boutique hotel, opened in a Georgian townhouse in late 2012. The historic building sits above Steak—a fine-dining restaurant that served as the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes scribe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1850s. The hotel’s interiors reveal nothing of its age, with just 10 luxurious suites—superior, executive or master—decked out with unique contemporary decor and modern furnishings. Named after individual local lochs, all spaces house exquisite bed linens, soaking tubs and rainforest showers. Our pad, the Loch Fyne room atop the building, boasts an enormous photographic mural of the Scottish landscape, which takes up one whole wall, facing a downy bed, 3-D HD-LED screen (with 3-D glasses on the nightstand), a SKY TV and iPod docking station. Hospitality is nearly as dapper. Don’t be surprised to find an umbrella (outside your door when it rains); a CD of Scottish hits (on your pillow); or locally made treats, a European wall adapter, housemade shortbread, newspapers or 3-D Blu-ray discs (in your room); sans ever having to ask.
After lounging around a bit, we trot out into the bustling streets of Edinburgh, eventually landing at The Scotch Whisky Experience (scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk). OK, so it’s a bit touristy—a Disneyland ride with alcohol—but the tastings are top-notch. With aid from seasoned instructors who know all about the country’s four scotch-producing regions Islay, Lowland, The Highlands and Speyside—we learn just enough to sound off an intelligent and correct order, which is good, considering it’s pretty much bottoms up from here on out. The venue also hoards the world’s largest collection of scotch on its top floor, with almost 3,500 individual bottles, each like a work of art, donated to the museum by Brazil’s magnate millionaire, Claive Vidiz.
Having gotten our fill—we’re both warm and full of scotch—we walk off our buzz around the city checking out Edinburgh Castle, luxury shops and taking in lunch. Soon, it’s time again for predinner drinks in the lobby at The Hotel Missoni Edinburgh (hotelmissoni.com). Located on the Royal Mile, the place is an edgy, bold ode to its namesake fashion house’s signature zigzag style. It also ratchets up the exclusivity factor with its status as one of only two Missoni properties worldwide (the other is in Kuwait). Our cocktail servers? Attractive lobby and bar staff clad in Missoni-patterned kilts. Their look sets a tone—the hotel’s 136 guest rooms (larger than those at Twelve Picardy Place, but with the same mod vibe) are awash in pops of pink and orange, reflecting the brand’s bright, textured aesthetic.
After polishing off some Italian-inspired cocktails, we hit dinner at Tower Restaurant (tower-restaurant.com) at the top of the National Museum of Scotland, where the buzz is that it has the city’s best cuisine and view, looking out over Edinburgh Castle. All true—but not all at once. At first, we’re not even sure if we’re in the right place—it’s after hours so the museum is empty and a security guard takes us on a silent ride up the elevator. Suddenly, the doors open into a secret culinary sanctuary. A swift seating and, almost immediately, an amuse-bouche of Scottish salmon and scallop ceviche arrives. We go on to devour piccalilli (pickled vegetables) and whole grilled plaice (a mild flatfish), as well as a goat cheese voulette with black onion seeds, all beautifully presented on thin slate slabs. The sommelier does his duty, recommending an exquisite wine for me and a locally made beer, Innis & Gunn, for my husband that will also pair nicely with our entree—scotch lamb served three ways. Too full for dessert (a complete crime!), we embark out into the dark, but completely safe, streets, strolling back to our hotel at Picardy Place, passing lively revelers along the way.
The next day the hotel brings around our rental car, just in time for us to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road, and the wrong side of the car, with the opposite hand on the gearshift. But mastering new motoring skills is completely worth it—Scotland drives are spectacular, and imperative to the whole experience. On the way to our next stop in Perthshire, for example, we spy large hairy cattle locals called coos. Cool, but we’re here for this fabulous remote inn, tucked deep into the Scottish countryside, called Monachyle Mhor Hotel (mhor.net)—a family-run boutique operation near Balquhidder, where the famed Rob Roy is buried.
After driving down a one-lane road for what seems like forever, passing the most stunning landscapes and offbeat villages along the way, we finally find the fog-shrouded pink hotel that, for 20 years, has been chilling on the banks of Loch Voil in The Trossachs National Park. The inn is run by Welshman Tom Lewis and his wife, Lisa. We’re surprised to find hip Manhattan-like room decor—especially way out here. But a total of 14 rooms—five in the actual inn, five more spacious and private courtyard spaces with fireplaces (in what was once a carriage house), and additional hotel rooms in Mhor house—up the luxury game, with organic Sedbergh toiletries and spoils like deep soaking tubs. (Of which, ours is soon christened).
All meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily) at Monachyle Mhor Hotel are an experience, but dinner shines. It’s so exceptional, in fact, its virtues have been lauded in The New York Times Dining Section. Our five-course dinner feast features a bevy of choices, but I opt for plates such as beetroot-cured salmon with vodka relish and a scrabster cod with squid-ink orzo pasta and pumpkin-seed pesto. My husband favors a corn-fed chicken, morel mushroom and potato dish, and the homemade puddings. As each new divine plate arrives, we share samples.
After only a couple of days here—walking the national forest, taunting sheep and indulging in Lewis’ hospitality—it feels as though we’ve regained weeks of rest. Needless to say, we issue a hesitant goodbye to the lodge’s friendly staff and motor toward my ancestral pool, the Highlands.
Heading north from Perthshire toward the illustrious Loch Ness, we wander the windy roads overlooking the famed lake. The black freshwater is more beautiful than menacing. Once in the quaint Loch Ness village, we hop a Jacobite cruise (jacobite.co.uk) out onto the mysterious waters to hear all about the deep below and the centuries of reported sightings of legend’s storied monster. I won’t lie, by the end of the tour I’m guzzling the boat guide’s stories—he’s convinced me that Nessie is out there somewhere. And, he’s convinced us that we should take a more scenic route than the one we’re planning for the rest of the day. He glances at our map and, as an alternative to the main highway, advises a narrow, unknown road up the eastern side of the loch that shows off the Highlands’ beauty.
Much obliged, we drive up over the steep mountain to the Highlands, where the height levels off and cliffs drop on either side. Up here, on one-lane bumpy roads with only the two of us for miles, all we see are fields of heather, cotton grass and moss-filled moors. Seeing all the small farms and homes dotting the Highlands, I think of my Henderson ancestors who came to America—a move that produced generations of dairy farmers. I picture them eras before, toiling in these fields, hard at the same work. Aching nostalgia (and many photo-op stops) aside, we eventually hook right onto a highway toward the shores of St Andrews.
When St Andrews—you know it as a mecca for golf-worshippers across the globe—appears in the distance, my husband’s excitement is palpable. Ever since he first saw its greens from his rabbit-eared TV set as a kid, he’s dreamed of being here. But here? The fabled, five-star Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa (oldcoursehotel.co.uk)? Not even he saw that coming. Once in our suite, the floor butler throws open the curtains to reveal that we are staying on one of the most famous golf holes in the world—the Road Hole Bunker on the par-4 17th hole. It is at precisely this moment that I think my husband’s head is going to explode. While he ogles the greens scene, I’m all about the Kohler color therapy baths with whirlpool jets in our suite and later falling into a blissful sleep, cocooned in luxurious bedding—a true win-win.
Now we both have our own dream of Scotland. But that’s par for the course in this country—one of the most majestic on Earth. Why, I wonder, would my relatives ever want to leave this idyllic land? Perhaps fate has intervened, and I will be the one to lead us back... Perhaps.