Why Fall Is the Perfect Time of Year to Plan a Dream Scottish Highlands Road Trip

Dubbed the world’s largest children’s museum, it’s difficult to miss the museum’s Welcome Center building—completed in 2009—thanks to life-size dinosaurs out front. A sculpture garden features miniature replicas of world monuments, from the Colosseum to the Taj Mahal.
Located east of the Sporades, in Greece, Gioura is a former monastic island which today has but a few wild goats as inhabitants. The island is, however, not without attraction – it hides amazing caves, all covered in impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
a man standing on a grassy hill: Touring the grounds of Alladale.

Stopping to lean on his staff, Peter Cramb surveyed the steep, heather-covered hill we had just climbed, his eyes sparkling, his weather-scoured cheeks aglow. “When the weather is fine, there isn’t a place more bonny than Scotland,” the 78-year-old gamekeeper said, looking out over the land on which he has worked for more than 50 years. “On a good day, you feel like the whole world is at your feet.”

Cramb and I were in Perthshire, in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, on a swath of land next to the Gleneagles estate, and I did indeed feel on top of the world — both physically and emotionally. Below us, a pair of young huntsmen clad in sage-green tweed led three stocky white ponies carrying a picnic lunch in wicker baskets on their backs. Streams burbled in the golden heather. In the distance, a hawk rode thermals above a jagged peak. And around us stretched mile upon mile of rust-colored moorland broken only by the occasional loch, in which the dappled yellows and reds of autumn foliage were reflected.

a large building: The exterior of Gleneagles, as seen from the grounds. | Nick Ballón

It was the first day of a weeklong road trip through the north of Scotland, on which I was to take in some of its finest new hotels and traverse some of its greatest tracts of wilderness. Having arrived at Gleneagles that morning, I was eager to get out and explore the nearby glens, but, this being Scotland, it wasn’t long before clouds closed in and a steady drizzle began to fall. When, after an hour or so, my walking boots started to squelch with thick, peaty mud, even Cramb had to concede that it was time to call it a day. “What you need,” he said with a mischievous grin, “is a Sloegasm: a shot of sloe gin, topped off with champagne. That should warm you up.”

A Sloegasm would have undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows at Gleneagles a few years ago; then, it was more of a straitlaced, scotch-and-haggis kind of place. But since its new owner, the 38-year-old Indian-born entrepreneur Sharan Pasricha, embarked on a multimillion-dollar redesign, which wrapped up this summer, it has become a new center for fun and sophistication in the Highlands.

Reclining on a jewel-colored sofa in the Century Bar and sipping Chablis from a crystal glass, Pasricha told me that his love affair with Scotland began on a tour with his Glasgow-born wife, Eiesha, the daughter of Indian telecom billionaire Sunil Mittal. His dream for Gleneagles, he said, was for it to again become a great Scottish playground — or, as it was once known, the Riviera of the Highlands. When the hotel first opened, in 1924, “people used to race up in their cars or on the train to be part of the social calendar,” he said. “It was all glamorous gowns and cocktails. We want to return to that, and show people of all ages what Scotland has to offer.”

From left: Huntsmen from the Gleneagles estate lead ponies across the surrounding moors; a view of the gardens at Gleneagles. | Nick Ballón

Certainly, the hotel feels fresh and updated, with its fern-colored walls, airy loft rooms, and marble-lined bathrooms. It’s buzzy, too: in the Century Bar, young whisky lovers sampled the contents of an impressive wall of bottles, while in the tearoom, families shared Scottish fruitcake and scones. Over in the black-lacquer and plum-velvet American Bar (its design was inspired by the underground bars of the Prohibition era) a couple had snuggled up beside a silver champagne bucket.

Although it was wet outside, the grounds were also alive with activity. In the Clubhouse, with its gallery of Ryder Cup tournament photos, rowdy golfers were drinking craft beers. At the falconry center, children were flying hawks and being taught how to handle ferrets — and screeching with laughter as the creatures insisted on wriggling up their sleeves.

Related: Scotland’s New Whisky Trail Takes You to Some of Its Most Stunning Remote Islands (Video)

When Ken Keith, a jovial 57-year-old guide with Wilderness Scotland, picked me up at Gleneagles, he wasn’t at all surprised by how busy it was. Tourism to Scotland is booming, he said — and more Americans are visiting than ever before. That’s not just because it is seen as a safe destination, a place associated with luxury products such as cashmere, whisky, and smoked salmon, and one of the most outward-looking and progressive parts of the United Kingdom. It’s also because, in recent years, international investors, including France’s Xavier-Louis Vuitton, the Swedish Tetra Pak heiress Sigrid Rausing, and a tranche of wealthy Russians and Danes, have snapped up run-down estates and castles — attracted by favorable exchange rates and the romance of owning a stately Scottish property. Unlike traditional landowners, primarily Scottish or English aristocrats who used the estates as hunting retreats, several of these new lairds are foresters and conservationists, keen to replace hunting with tourism and showcase the landscape of the Highlands in all its raw beauty. Some have taken former farms and hunting lodges and turned them into hotels — and it was to three of these properties that I was traveling north to explore.

There are few other places in Europe that contain such large expanses of wild, open land as Scotland. This remarkable landscape is the legacy of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, during which tens of thousands of Scots were evicted from their land to make way for large, more profitable sheep farms. In that era, more than 6 million acres of the country were carved up into just a few hundred private properties.

As Keith and I drove north, we passed mile after mile of heather-carpeted moors, lochs, and misty, glacier-gouged mountains, recognizable from starring roles in TV and film titles including Outlander and the Harry Potter series. We were headed to an estate named Glenfeshie, which, since having been bought by Danish fashion billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006, has become something of a model of conservation in these parts. His efforts have been so successful, in fact, that during my visit the movie Mary Queen of Scots was being shot there — in part because many glens are still covered in the Caledonian pine trees that would have dominated the landscape in the 16th century. Some are original, and some have been replanted.

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