Star rating - 8/10
For a confirmed urbanite like myself, I simply cannot imagine not living in a city, specifically Manchester of course, with all its energy and culture. But for the second summer running I have also learnt to appreciate some of the wild places of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where wildlife is abundant, people are scarce, and there's not a cinema or theatre in sight. It is absolutely comfort food for the soul, and a chance to recharge and renew via a connection with the spectacularly beautiful nature that surrounds us if we care to look for it.
After the delights of Knoydart and the Small Isles last year, this time I ventured to Wester Ross on the west coast. and the Cairngorm mountains, again courtesy of Wilderness Scotland, via an amazingly quick flight to Inverness. And again the wildlife was all around, just on the drive from Inverness to our base in Gairloch we saw a red kite; a red deer; a raven; and an osprey nesting at the top of a pylon. A 22km hike through the Fisherfield Forest was, luckily for my aching feet, rewarded with views over remote lochs and mountains which are unforgettable. The contrast between busy city life and the quiet contemplation which these Highland spots bring about is quite remarkable. The sight of a golden eagle soaring around one of the peaks to protect its young from the interlopers was majestic. And for some of the walk along the shores of Loch Maree we could truly have been in Tolkien Hobbit land it was so quaint.
The coastal position of Wester Ross afforded glimpses, clouds permitting, of the beautiful isles in the distance including Skye, reminding me of last year's adventures. And in this part of Scotland it is only a short drive from the coastline, with its harbour seals and cormorants, to the magnificent peaks of the Cairngorms. And how could I forget to mention the welcoming sight of Hillbillies in Strath on the journey. It's my ideal sort of shop in fact, selling books; huge slices of tasty homemade cakes; with the strains of Nashville music wafting through its comfy rooms. If I was to set up a business it would probably look something like this. An ideal combination.
The feeling of standing on top of a mountain near Aviemore looking all around and for endless miles seeing only other mountain tops is quite a spiritual one. Our nearly 12km walk on the peaks took us via a hill with no name (bit thoughtless of whoever names these hills I think); up Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1215m); and Cairn Lochan. And a distance bothy in a shower of highland rain is a very welcoming sight.
The influence of Queen Victoria's famed love of these parts is much in evidence, with some lovely villas and hotels around from that period. Aviemore itself is a bit busy for my tastes, coming from a city dweller that's a bit rich I know, but on my escapism trips I like to see as few people as possible and just enjoy the natural world and miles and miles of walking. And of course learn to appreciate the subtle differences between the various types of West Coast and Speyside whiskies on offer. The wild places in Scotland are really something special, but just don't tell too many people about them, I'd like to keep them that way.