Craggy castles, a wee dram (or three) and everything from fish and chips to fine dining – this northeast coastal corner is Scottishness distilled.
When you think of Scotland, you probably envisage the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, the Highlands and the Shetland Islands. And while you probably don’t think of Aberdeenshire, this quiet corner on the northeastern coast makes the perfect weekend retreat.
Known for being the hub of the oil industry for the last 40 years, the region has turned into so much more with award-winning restaurants, ancient castles (263 to be exact) and the bustling port city of Aberdeen.
Aberdeen – where the Dee and Don rivers meet the North Sea – was also Britain’s only entry on the New York Times list of 52 must-see places in 2019. Marek Kotelon/Shutterstock
This beautiful part of the world is also much loved by royals past and present and it's where you'll find Balmoral, the royal family's holiday home. The castle is said to be where Queen Elizabeth is at her happiest, while Queen Victoria described it as a place where "all seemed to breathe freedom and peace". A sentiment that still rings true to this day.
Here’s how to make the most of a weekend away in the region.
Check-in to: Douneside House to explore the beautiful grounds and sample the award-winning food. Located in Aboyne on the edge of Cairngorms National Park in Royal Deeside, this country hotel has 13 bedrooms and eight idyllic holiday cottages, with some offering luxe features such as freestanding bathtubs. With views over the Howe of Cromar, the hotel has a classic but cosy vibe with open fires, comfy armchairs and luxurious spa facilities.
Take a tour: of Crathes Castle. Once used as a defensive stronghold, today you’ll find furniture from the 1500’s, painted ceilings with hidden messages and stories of the local ghosts. The walled garden features huge sculpted yew trees dating from the 16th century too.
Courtesy of Crathes Castle
Top tip: If you love spooky stories, visit in October to find out more about the castle’s haunted history. You might even catch a glimpse of the famous Green Lady!
Hang out with the locals: at Aberdeenshire Highland Beef. Meet Grace and her herd in Banchory and see how a working farm is run. Sample some of the super tasty beef and even pose for a selfie with one of her award-winning cows.
If you’re there over the weekend, head to her pop-up butchery that runs every Saturday and Sunday, where Grace sells a selection of premium highland beef cuts from her herd that have been traditionally hung and matured on site. Nothing goes to waste from the cows on the farm, with the hide being sent to Lamborghini for the leather in their luxury cars.
Courtesy of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef
Have dinner at: Douneside House. The six-course tasting menu in the AA rosette rated restaurant makes the most of seasonal cuisine using fresh herbs and vegetables grown in the on-site garden. After dark take a visit to the RAF themed bar for a night cap where in winter you can sit in front of the roaring fire surrounded by furnishings upholstered in the house tartan.
Blow away the cobwebs: at Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve. The enchanting trails and magical woodland are the perfect place if you’ve had a wee dram or two too many the night before.
Search out the Burn O’Vat cave, an ancient water carved bowl complete with a hidden waterfall. Visiting the Vat isn’t for the faint-hearted: to reach it you need to negotiate rocks and stepping stones surrounded by the fast flowing but shallow water. The effort is worth it for the views when you get inside. If you want to have the place to yourself, get their early or slightly later in the day.
Top tip: Muir Dinnet Nature Reserve is packed full of walking trails for all abilities, so if you have time, you can make a day of it.
Follow in royal footsteps at: the village of Ballater. This tiny village dates from the 1800s and is known as the Royal Warrant town, due to its exceptionally high number of royal rewards – very apt as it’s the nearest town to Balmoral. Camilla, Duchess of Rothesay (as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is known when in Scotland) recently paid a visit here too.
Make sure you duck into the Dee Valley Confectioners to see boiled sugar being stretched into sweets and pick up some homemade treats. Famous past customers have included the singer Kylie Minogue.
Take a break: at The Carriage where you can sample a traditional British afternoon tea. The centrepiece of Ballater, the wooden building was formerly the Royal Railway Station and where the royal family would disembark when heading to Balmoral.
Courtesy of Kate Dooley/The Carriage
It was destroyed by a fire in 2015, but underwent a £3 million restoration where its character has been revived. After your afternoon tea, take a peek inside the train that sits in the main restaurant – a replica of Queen Victoria’s royal carriage, you can see how she travelled in style.
Try the local tipple: at Royal Lochnagar Whisky distillery. Discover how Scotch is made as the staff work the traditional mash tun, gleaming coper stills and fill the casks. Whether you’re a whisky lover or not, don’t miss sampling a dram of the award-winning Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old Single Highland Malt.
Courtesy of Royal Lochnagar
Rest your head: at the Fife Arms, a Victorian coaching inn located in Braemar. Full of flamboyant displays of taxidermy, traditional tartan walls and modern art, the interior was designed by the renowned interior design studio Russell Sage.
Courtesy of the Fife Arms
With 46 rooms that have been decorated to tell the story of Braemer's history, it also doubles as a showcase for contemporary art. In the drawing room and displayed on the dark tartan walls, is an original Picasso. Make sure to look up, as the ceiling was painted and designed by Chinese artist Zhang Enli, and is a fascinating take on the Scottish landscape.
Have a bite to eat at: The Bay Fish & Chips. Overlooking the North Sea in the tiny fishing village of Stonehaven, just 15 miles of Aberdeen, expect sustainably sourced fish in a light batter and perfectly chunky chips. It’s popular so anticipate a queue.
Explore the city center: of Aberdeen. Just a short drive from The Bay Fish & chips, the city centre is a place of two tales, where the harbour meets the central buzz. Famous for its sparkling granite buildings (it’s known as the granite city for a reason!) and monuments which shimmer in the sunlight, the best example is the famous Marischal College. The 19th century gothic style building is a foreboding sight with the dark grey granite. It’s now the headquarters of the city council it's open to the public.
Try a tradition: at Mackie’s 19.2 and sample their delicious ice cream. These guys have been around for decades and have just opened their new ice cream parlour, which is exactly 19.2 miles from the family farm (hence the name) where they started making the frozen treat more than 30 years ago. A must try is their famous Buttery and Jam ice cream – a true taste of the north.
Learn about local life in: Footdee, locally known as the Fittie. An old fishing village by the harbour, Footdee is one of the most recognisable areas in Aberdeen. The charming cottages and cobbled lanes were originally built to rehouse an influx of fisherman to the city. It shows a completely different side of the area and many of the local residents add quirky touches to their tiny homes.
Pavel Pavlovich M/Shutterstock
Map & getting around
If you’re staying in the city centre it’s easy enough to get around on foot. However, if you want to follow this itinerary and visit the places further afield such as Dunnottar Castle, you’ll need a car.
For more information about what to see and do in the area visit visitabdn.com
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