Beyond Edinburgh lie some of Scotland’s finest lochs and isles. Explore them in style with the trip of a lifetime on board the Belmond Royal Scotsman. Words: Vicky Mayer
The Scots have always been proud of their illustrious heritage and jaw-dropping scenery but even they were taken aback this summer when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took an unannounced trip to the Scottish isles. Cycling around the Isle of Bute and walking his dog on Arran, he stopped frequently to admire the scenery.
Abramovich obviously knows a good thing when he sees it and following in his footsteps, we took a memorable three night journey around the Western Isles aboard Belmond’s Royal Scotsman.
The journey begins in Edinburgh and rather than rush up from London to make the 1pm departure, we stayed the night before at The Balmoral, arguably the finest hotel in the Scottish capital. This Gothic masterpiece sits proudly at the top of Princes Street overlooking the Scott Memorial and the Old Town. Our beautifully designed suite was both spacious and comfortable but the jewel in the crown of this slick hotel has to be its Michelin starred restaurant, Number One. Whilst many hotel restaurants try hard to compete with London’s best dining destinations and come unstuck, here Executive Chef Jeff Bland succeeds, producing dishes of dazzling complexity, style and taste.
After a leisurely breakfast (top marks for the Scottish kippers) our bags are transferred to the hotel’s lobby where our three day journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman begins. Over a pot of tea, and a friendly nod to our fellow passengers, the staff talks us through our journey whilst our bags are discreetly transferred on board the train. Then it’s a minute’s stroll to the adjacent Waverley Station where we are greeted with a glass of champagne, red carpet and Scottish piper, resplendent in a kilt, and escorted aboard the train.
Home for the next three days feels like one of Agatha Christie’s finest novels – part Murder Mystery, part Edwardian country house and as thrilling as any journey you’ve ever taken. The wood panelled train is comfortable and intimate with the Dining Carriage adjoining the Observation Carriage at the front of the train. Meanwhile the cosy bedroom cabins are decked out in tartan and perfect for an afternoon nap.
But first up is afternoon tea and a groaning spread of scones, sandwiches, tea, more champagne and a meeting with the train’s crew and jovial General Manager Michael Andrews. On our trip there’s an Octanarian Australian lady proudly travelling the world alone, two 40something couples enjoying the fruits of their labour and a delightfully eccentric couple on their third trip aboard the Belmond Royal Scotsman, who greet the staff like old friends. No wonder Agatha Christie set so many of her novels on trains; they’re the perfect backdrop for mayhem and mystery. The small, intimate setting allows you to get to know your fellow passengers and it’s fun to swap tables for dinner at night and trade life stories.
But passengers aside, it’s the scenery that’s the star of the show on this journey. The train takes a leisurely round trip through the Western Isles with daily stop-offs at some of Scotland’s finest beaches, lochs and islands. Lulled by the rocking of the carriages and mesmerising view of Ben Arthur and Loch Lomond, on the first afternoon I fell asleep in my cabin dreaming of pipers, haggis and men in kilts.
Like the best country house parties, dinner and entertainment are quietly taken care of. Each evening guests meet up for a pre dinner cocktail in the Observation Carriage before heading to dinner next door. The locally produced food including venison and haggis is fantastic with plenty of choice for even the most pernickety of eaters. The conversation on the first night is of travel, nationality and trains. The intimate setting is relaxing and friendships are easily struck up. After the meal, it’s back to the Observation Carriage for an after dinner coffee and a nightcap.
Entertainment is provided nightly by a host of young talented musicians who are proud to be playing traditional Scottish folk music on guitar, violins and even accordions. Warmed up by a whisky, you’ll soon be singing along with your fellow passengers.
After a sound night’s sleep and a bowl of the best porridge I have ever tasted (the secret apparently is adding full cream and a wee dram), it was time to step off the train and explore Scotland’s wonderful heritage. Over two days we kicked our heels in the Moray sands, got a history lesson at historic Glenfillan, and hiked through the Nevis Gorge to the Steall Waterfall against the backdrop of majestic Ben Nevis.
However the highlight of the trip for me was a visit by boat to the Isle of Bute and a tour of the mysterious Mount Stewart, the spectacular Gothic architectural fantasy of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and his architect Sir Robert Rowlan Anderson. Its white marbled chapel and spooky glass floored secret chapel is the stuff of Game of Thrones fantasies.
Back on board, by day three the train had become home and our fellow passengers, family. So, when on the last night you’re encouraged to dress to the nines, it feels like New Year’s Eve. The champagne flows, the conversation crackles and email addresses are rapidly exchanged.
The power of this extraordinary trip is that it’s both relaxing and exhilarating and you’re so spoilt by the fantastic staff that it’s hard not to hug them all individually when you reluctantly leave the train at Waverley Station three days later.
Back on terra firma, my memories (plus some great photos and new friends) are all I have. But these are memories that will last a lifetime. Like the Orient Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman deserves every accolade it receives – and more.
A one night’s B&B stay in a double classic bedroom for two at the Balmoral Hotel is £224 (including breakfast). For more information visit roccofortehotels.com/Balmoral-Hotel or call 0131 556 2414
Belmond Royal Scotsman
Prices for a three night/four day Western Journey on the Belmond Royal Scotsman starts from £3,540 per person, based on two people sharing a double cabin and including all table d’hote meals and excursions. To book or for more information visit belmond.com or call 0845 077 2222