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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Year of Active Scotland - The Highlands


An epic land of towering mountain peaks, rich native Caledonian forests, brooding glens and tumbling rivers, the Highlands are Scotland’s gigantic adventure playground. There are more sheep than people and often you don’t even see many of those in one of Europe’s last great wildernesses, an oasis that is ideal for organising a wide array of top notch MICE events.

I started my exploration in Fort William in the western Lochaber region, which these days styles itself as the ‘UK’s Outdoor Capital’ (www.outdoorcapital.co.uk). The big attraction is the Nevis Range (www.nevisrange.co.uk), Lochaber’s world class adventure playground. I hopped on the gondola 650m up the slopes of the Aonach Mor mountain. After lunch in their panoramic restaurant I checked out a couple of short walks that break away from the visitor centre, before setting off on a mountain bike route. This is ideal mountain bike country and the centre here is world famous, each year hosting a round of the UCI World Cup. It has also hosted the World Championships. The body armour obligatory black run was a bit too much for me, so I settled for an easier ride on the lower slopes.

Next up was time for one of the Highlands’ newest attractions, a safari. Yes I did say a safari. I thoroughly recommend this for small incentive groups. As the safari truck’s (more a minibus) engine switched off we were plunged into silent darkness. As my eyes struggled to adjust there came the bloodcurdling cries. It sounded like a murder had been committed. My guide from Wild West Safari (www.wildwestsafari.co.uk) beamed on his powerful searchlight to reveal the infamous rutting of the UK’s largest mammal, the red deer. Witnessing these majestic stags in full force was an unforgettable experience, as thrilling as an African safari. Then there was close contact with bats, owls and pine martens too.

Fort William lies at the southwestern end of the Great Glen, the gorgeous geological fault line that forges from the Atlantic to the North Sea in a flurry of mountains, glens and lochs. The most famous of the lochs is, of course, Loch Ness. It is best explored aboard one of the Jacobite Experience vessels (www.jacobite.co.uk). This well run company boasts years of experience with business tourism groups and you can have an exclusive cruise with catering as you patrol the waters searching for the famous monster, Nessie. You can then disembark to take in the delights of the dreamy lochside Urquhart Castle (www.historic-scotland.gov.uk).

The Highland capital of Inverness lies at the opposite end of the Great Glen from Fort William, providing an alternative airport to Glasgow and Edinburgh for MICE groups looking to save time and fly straight into the Highlands. An award winning adventure company who are spot on with groups, Boots N Paddles (www.boots-n-paddles.co.uk), have a base in Inverness. They offer just about any activity you can think of, from kayaking and rafting, through to heart pumping gorge scrambling and even a mini Highland Games for groups.

Just a short drive south brought me to Scotland’s most famous slice of whisky country, legendary Speyside. The spectacular setting for some of the world’s most famous distilleries, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Aberlour amongst them, is a scenic treat awash with rolling hills, rugged mountains and the sweep of one of Scotland’s mightiest rivers, the Spey itself. You could take a business tourism group around by bus, but what about a whisky tasting trip by canoe?

I hooked up with Dave at Spirit of the Spey (www.spiritofthespey.co.uk), who knows the river as well as anyone and is well used to working with corporate clients. He offers a range of flexible trips that offer the chance to paddle as well as sample whiskies and visit distilleries en route. For those with more time he can organise multi-day safaris. Here you can camp by the banks of the Spey or relax in more comfort in comfy B&Bs, or do a mixture of both. His Newtonmore base, The Beeches, is a grand Victorian dame where his wife conjures up delicious home cooked meals, while Dave conducts Balvenie tastings by a roaring fire.

I then enjoyed a more sedate whisky tasting experience at the Craigellachie Hotel (www.oxfordhotelsandinns.com/OurHotels/Craigellachie), which also boasts meetings rooms and a highly regarded restaurant. It is also home to perhaps the world’s finest whisky bar. The Quaich Bar is crammed from floor to ceiling with every dram you can think of, from ancient whiskies and rare expressions from long closed distilleries, through to all of today’s famous global brands, with a whisky here for all moods and tastes.
It was time now to check out the adjacent Cairngorms National Park (www.visitcairngorms.com) from its resort hub of Aviemore. Aviemore is home to an excellent conference and meetings resort, the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort (www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/Aviemore), which is perhaps the best equipped C&I hotel in the Highlands with 400 bedrooms, a 650-seat auditorium and the 1000m² Osprey Arena, as well as 8 meetings rooms.

The Cairngorms themselves are a mighty mountain range. This Jurassic wilderness could have been moulded with active sports in mind. I headed into the Rothiemurchus Forest in the expert arms of Wilderness Scotland (www.wildernessscotland.com). This award winning company don’t miss a trick, whether you are here for a leisure trip or have a demanding group of corporate highfliers to entertain. After kitting me out and checking my experience we were off bashing around the trails on a mountain bike. We swung around ancient pines, rumbled across tight tree root studded single track and across old forgotten trails in an experience as far removed from organised mountain bike centres as you can get. Wilderness Scotland offer myriad experiences around the Highlands, from guided hiking adventures into the Cairngorms through to exclusive use of a yacht to explore the gorgeously indented coastline of the Highlands.

The most famous mountain around Aviemore is, of course, Cairngorm itself. And these days it is more accessible than ever. The base station can organise testing ranger-led hikes from the car park to the visitor centre, but a mountain railway (www.cairngormmountain.com) now also eases up the slopes too, opening up breathtaking views as it goes. 

This is a serious mountain range that only the experienced with the right gear should consider venturing into on foot. The beauty of the mountain railway is that everyone can have a taste of what it feels like to be so high up a Scottish mountain. The Ptarmigan Restaurant here is well set up for business tourism, with a whisky tasting session followed by a meal of Speyside smoked salmon and Highland beef the perfect way to end an active day in the Highlands, one of Europe’s last great wildernesses.

For more information on this area of Scotland please contact:

Moira Unwin
Business Tourism Manager
VisitScotland
Cowan House
Inverness Retail and Business Park
Inverness
IV2 7GF
Tel: +44 (0) 1463 244 115
Email: moira.unwin@visitscotland.com




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