Scottish coast a real breath of fresh Ayr
Aer Lingus (Glasgow International) www.aer lingus.com. Ryanair (Glasgow Prestwick) www.ryanair.com
Flybe (Glasgow International) www.flybe.com
Aer Lingus (Glasgow International) www.aer lingus.com
Belfast to Cairnryan www.stenaline.ie or from Larne to Troon www.poferries.com.
For more information on any of the activities mentioned go to visitscotland.com/natural
Aston Hotel, Dumfries www.astonhotels.co.uk/ our-hotels-dumfries.html
Glenapp Castle www.g lenappcastle.com
Hotel Indigo http:// hotelindigoglasgow.com
When I think Scotland, I think castles, Edinburgh, haggis, Glasgow and deep- fried Mars Bars. Shame on me, because our northerly neighbours have a lot more to offer than its two biggest cities and artery-stopping snacks.
Our trip took us to the lesser-travelled regions of Dumfries & Galloway and Ayrshire, to the south and south west of Glasgow. Car is probably the best way to explore if you want to make the most of the beautiful coastal scenery and it's not far from Glasgow International Airport.
Before you hit the road, or are tempted to stop in a Little Chef, take a diversion to the Three Sisters Bake, a family-run restaurant and bakery in the historic Quarrier's Village. It's a hidden gem and great way to kick-start a culinary tour of the region.
Our first sightseeing stop was a two-hour drive away to Threave Gardens and Estate, a National Trust property covering 647 hectares. It's one of Scotland's bat hotspots, as well as a sanctuary for wildfowl.
If you visit the nearby castle, you'll have the novelty of ringing for the custodian to collect you by boat.
On our first night, we took refuge from the relentless rain in the Aston Hotel. It's standard accommodation, but they do a roaring trade in golf trips due to its proximity to Dumfries & Galloway's 30 courses.
Improvements are under way at the hotel (plans for a gym and improved wi-fi) and the staff couldn't be more helpful or friendly – which became a bit of a theme everywhere we went.
Anyone who likes a little oddity should take a trip to the Dumfries Museum – built around a windmill above the town. The museum houses a Camera Obscura, the oldest working instrument of its kind in the world. For anyone who hasn't seen one, it's an ingenuous astronomical instrument – think an 1800's version of Google maps. It's the kind of optical trickery that kids will love, but our group of adults was just as impressed. (One note – the camera can't be used in very wet/windy conditions for fear of damage, so do check with the museum in advance).
With a focus on natural Scotland, we stopped off at Cream O'Galloway ice-cream factory and farm, where you can make your own ice cream. No prizes for guessing that whiskey featured heavily in our concoction, but I suggest you have a scoop of their caramel shortbread flavour, possibly the best thing I have ever eaten. The owners are all about sustainable farming, and as we arrived in lambing season we had the privilege of holding baby lambs, which is an affirming moment for a vegetarian, or an appetite-whetter for a carnivore. For families, there's a hand-built adventure playground, nature trails, and a 3D maze.
Upping the pace at Lagan Outdoors (which boasted Europe's longest zip wire until Wales pipped it to the post recently), we experienced more spectacular views. More sedentary activities than the 820-metre zip wire are available, like clay pigeon shooting and Segways (there is something very weird about riding a Segway across a field full of of sheep and lambs, but they didn't seem to mind).
Usually this kind of activity puts me off, because I'm a chicken, but also because it's usually overpriced, but here the zip wire is only £15 or if you are crazy, £25 for two goes.
Driving through Dumfries & Galloway was a more peaceful experience – taking in the moors covered in heather, herds of belted Galloway cattle, grouse, black faced sheep (the hardiest type). It is also the least mountainous part of Scotland (70 per cent of Scotland is upland which you might want to consider for a cycling trip, unless you want to end up with thighs like Chris Hoy's).
If you have time, local bard Robbie Burns' mausoleum is also in Dumfries, but we were already zooming past 'Haste ye Back' road signs and heading for Ayrshire.
Culzean Castle is one of Scotland's best loved castles, and no wonder. It is almost indescribably impressive.
The walled gardens are straight out of Lewis Carroll's imagination, not to mention the swan pond, deer park and the castle itself with its jaw-dropping sea view. Even if you have seen your fair share of castles, I can't see how this could fail to impress.
Ascending the tree-lined entrance to the super-exclusive Glenapp Castle was an incredible way to end the day. Glenapp is opulent and luxurious, but still homely and romantic. The staff are incredible (especially when you inevitably get lost and can't find your room).
With no signposts, they are not looking for passing trade and rooms come with a hefty price tag, but if you want exclusivity, luxury, stunning grounds and a totally immersive Jane Austen eat-your-heart-out experience, then you won't be disappointed.
Glasgow is a city whose reputation precedes it. Yes, it can be grey and wet, but personally I like a town with grit, and if the people don't win you over, you might need to check your pulse. A total change of scene from Glenapp, we spent our last night at the Hotel Indigo, a super-modern, stylish hotel smack bang in the heart of the city.
If you find yourself at a loose end, it's worth checking out what is going on (concerts, art classes, ceramic workshops) at House for an Art Lover, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building just a few miles outside the city centre.
As for foodie delights, the famous Ubiquitous Chip, situated in a cobbled mews serves traditional Scottish food, but not as you know it. We tasted Orkney organic hot smoked salmon, Jerusalem artichoke tart fine, Galloway lamb for the meat eaters with wild leek and ramson dumplings and for veggies – heritage carrots, roast grape and pumpkin seed spelt with tarragon mousse and anster crumbs, followed by a selection of Scotland's cheese, which gives the French a run for their money (as their whiskey does ours).
Suffice to say, you won't go hungry or thirsty in Glasgow, with one restaurant for every 1,000 people. Cail Bruich is a great find that offers foraging tours to pick edible herbs and plants. JK Rowling could have named the ones we sampled: Pennywort, Sweet Cicely and Ox Eye Daisy Leaf, which are used in the restaurant to make inventive dishes like Herb sushi with scurvy grass and the pleasing to say (and to eat) Hay parfait for dessert ... not a fried Mars Bar in sight.
One cultural sight not to miss in Glasgow is Kelvingrove Art gallery (with 10 million visitors and counting since opening). It's beautiful outside and in, and free to the public. In fact, all of Glasgow's 35 museums and galleries are free all year round. Miss it and the 'weegies' (as Glaswegians are affectionately known) will call you a 'daftie'.
This year is the Year of Natural Scotland, but 2014 is shaping up to be just as important. From July 23 to August 4, Glasgow will host The Commonwealth Games, with 6,500 athletes, along with supporters and spectators arriving in their droves. With one million tickets available, the Scots are determined to pull off an Olympic-style feat, including giving everyone a real Scottish welcome. The impressive Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, complete with 250-metre cycling track, will be the hub of the Games and we were lucky enough to get a quick tour around (and a peek at the local hero's gilded bicycle cage).
As well as the Games, there is also a small golf tournament you may have heard of – the Ryder Cup comes to town in September 2014.
With the independence question looming, big change may be ahead too.
Whatever happens politically, I hope the people stay the same, because whiskey, kilts and castles aside, it's Scotland's people that make it.
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