Most of us want to escape our small towns for lives in the big city.
For some it was watching Sex and the City growing up, for others it’s loading up Grindr and seeing so many men that you have to upgrade to premium to see beyond 500 meters. For most it’s to escape the close-minded homophobia of little communities.
Whatever the reason for moving, after a few years of pollution, towering buildings and angry, angry people, we eventually beg for a sweet escape to the countryside.
Not permanently, sure. But a short retreat, to de-blacken our lungs and widen our eyes to the majesty of nature. And no place is better for this than Speyside, in the Scottish highlands.
The area gains its beauty from its sheer strength, combining stunning, rolling hills, adorable cottages, and a well-known weapon of mass-jubilation: Scotch whisky.
Speyside is cute, cute, cute
The ride from the airport to your hotel is often one of the more exciting parts of the trip. In the city, you can see the layers of culture and society unfold, like a giant onion. In Speyside, it’s nearly all countryside.
Rivers run alongside the roads, so smooth and pure they look like they’re made of glass. The hills are bold and emerald, thriving in the wet climate. Harsh winds batter against the cars, whistling through the glass almost in warning.
The villages are Midsomer Murders quaint; all stone buildings and gardens running into fields. The Craigellachie Hotel, the 125-year-old hotel where I stayed, mixed this homely comfort with a contemporary edge. Think romantic countryside guesthouse with decent wifi.
Speyside is incredibly LGBTI-friendly – and Scotland’s world-class protections will bring piece of mind | Photo: Tom Capon
A burning fire greets you at reception. To the right is a drawing room, complete with taxidermy and sofas so sinkable you’ll fall into another dimension after a day of whisky touring.
However, the Craigellachie thrives in the bedroom. The design is cosy without feeling like you’re visiting your grandma. The four-poster bed sat proudly in the center and, when I first saw it, I spent a good few minutes being sad I’m single.
The stone bathroom does have a gorgeous bath-shower. But it’s not as insulated as the rest of the room, weirdly, so it felt like I’d accidentally stepped through the door into the River Spey just outside the hotel.
Beam me up, Scotch-y
I’ve always considered myself a fan of whisky – as in, I can appreciate the taste without crying about it being too strong like an alcoholic baby. After heading to Speyside, it turns out I know as much about whisky as an ant knows about algebra.
Nearly everyone in the area is involved in the industry – from the youngest daughter to the oldest man. And everyone talks about it like they are collectively raising a child, but the child is booze. The region is home to half of Scotland’s Scotch distilleries.
The beauty of Speyside is dramatic | Photo: Tom Capon
Which makes it the perfect location for the Spirit of Speyside festival, held in the first week of May every year. Distilleries, bars, hotels and shops across the area host a whole celebration dedicated to the drink, with nearly 29,000 people visiting from 34 different countries.
Unlike most festivals, this isn’t localized to one place. Speyside sprawls across the countryside, meaning you’ll have to explore the area to truly experience it all. My pre-festival preview tour began at Strathisla Distillery in Keith, the best looking distillery of them all.
Welcoming us with the mastery of Scottish hospitality, their guides showed us through this historic spot – it is, after all, the oldest working distillery in the area. The tour takes you past whirring machinery, acidic smells so strong your nose hairs flinch into your body, and rooms where photography could ignite the alcohol in the air and explode everything (no joke).
The tour culminated in the opportunity to create our own Scotch blend using a series of malt whiskies (meaning I could live out my fantasies of being a drunk mad scientist), before settling into the bar for a few whisky cocktails.
Windswept and whisky-filled | Photo: Tom Capon
The hills are thriving with all kinds of different distilleries, offering variations on the above. Glen Grant Distillery is bigger and more modern – and also comes with the carefully curated Victorian Gardens to boot.
It’s a pleasure to eat
A day of drinking whisky stripped my throat red-raw. Surrounded by expert whisky drinkers, I was tipsy enough to need to vet every one of my thoughts before they left my mouth with the skill of airport security. The only cure for this is food.
This is how I fell in love with the Dowans Hotel.
The property is a compact country estate. What Craigellaiche has in charm this place oozes in old-fashioned sophistication. Before food, we were treated to a few whisky cocktails in their modern bar, easing our palette before more straight Scotch.
Drinks come in all shapes and sizes | Photo: Tom Capon
The co-owner of the hotel shook these cocktails herself – not a rare sight in the whisky industry nowadays. More and more, women are taking up the cause and giving new life to an ancient industry. In particular, her cause was putting cocktails in the same spot as straight whisky. Sacrilege to some, but a way to make the art of tasting scotch more accessible to others.
However, after another drink I was more than ready for food. Sitting in the traditional dining room, Spé, and lit by the dim features above us, I was handed dish after dish of spectacular food. Every ingredient was as fresh as the air outside.
The scallops were divine, accompanied by pieces of rhubarb, lending a delightfully sweet sting and a cute aesthetic.
Ultimately, the meal and my day led up to the venison. Sourced from the local estate – from a stag, more specifically – it wasn’t as overpoweringly rich yet was ever-so-slightly tougher than your ‘standard’ venison. This texture melded perfectly with a rabbit game and haggis sausage accompanying it. It is the concept of salivation made flesh.
I can’t stop thinking about this meal | Photo: Tom Capon
Yet culinary delights aren’t hard to find in these hills. The next day we hopped into a jeep and drove down winding country roads until we found a cottage – and Gillie Basan.
The renowned travel and food writer spent most of her adult years exploring the world in search of the best recipes, before finding her home in the hills of Speyside.
Now, she welcomes people into her house and teaches them how to cook. She created a gorgeous meal for us, with the goal of using spices to enhance the taste of whisky. Gillie herself is softly spoken and with a kindness that makes it impossible not to feel like you belong in her house.
Her home was as beautiful as the food. Belly full, I sat petting her two adorable Labradors as I looked out at the magnificent, endless hills surrounding it. It’s strange how we can find such treasures in the wilderness.
The great outdoors
All this trekking indoors, however pretty the gardens, wasn’t quite the country escape I was craving. I wanted to get into the hills of the highlands – the ones whisky smugglers used to hide their tracks during prohibition.
When the opportunity to board an argocat – an all-terrain four-wheel-drive vehicle – and explore the countryside around Glenlivet distillery arrived, I jumped at the chance. A group of us piled into the back of the argocat.
The road threw us around. We stopped a few times to open and close some gates. Then we reached the top.
Our drivers poured us all a dram of whisky and we stared out to highlands. The wind whipped around us and the chill started to creep into my bones, until I sipped the Scotch. Clouds of fog growled closer to our spot. The Scottish countryside is a harsh kind of beauty.
But when you take a minute to absorb it all, you can feel it reverberating in that primal part of your soul. The smog of city life just needs a few moments in the glens and the pollution, literal and metaphorical, evaporates.
And it really helps if you’re a bit drunk on whisky.
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