Aberdeenshire: Touched by Majesty

For more than 160 years the royal family has spent summer holidays enjoying the delights of Aberdeenshire. In the first of a four-part series, Fiona Horan gives an overview of what groups could discover in this part of Scotland.

From museums to mountains

I know Aberdeenshire from childhood trips to see my grandparents who lived in the Highland village of Braemar. Most summers (and a couple of magical winters) off my family would go – just like the Royals – to stay in the valley of the river Dee, surrounded by the Cairngorm Mountains. This area is known as Royal Deeside and follows the river through some of Scotland’s finest scenery. It has a very distinctive atmosphere and identity and is just one facet of this enormously varied Scottish county.

As well as the pleasures of the countryside, visitors can also enjoy city sophistication, arts, museums, history, restaurants, festivals and shopping in ‘The Granite City’ Aberdeen – a prosperous metropolis and the third largest in Scotland. Aberdeen is also the area’s major transport hub – not just road, rail and air – but also the departure point for ferries to the Orkneys and Shetland Islands – a ferry route I took a few years ago and found to be very comfortable (with the possibility of spotting dolphins and whales en route!).

Coastline and castles

The coastline of Aberdeenshire and neighbouring Banffshire offers sandy bays, rugged cliffs, attractive seaside towns and villages, dramatic castle ruins, and chances to spot wildlife – including dolphins, seals and puffins. It is easy to find your own deserted secret sandy hideaway. Alternatively, head to seaside towns like Stonehaven with its attractive yachting harbour, open air swimming pool and plentiful eateries.

Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle

The turbulent history of the region has left its mark in some wonderful castles and fortresses to visit – including some of the most beautiful in the country. These include turreted fairytale castles like the Queen’s private residence Balmoral Castle near Braemar in Royal Deeside and Craigievar Castle at Alford; austere fortresses such as Corgarff Castle, Strathdon; and dramatic cliff-top ruins such as Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven.

One of Aberdeenshire’s premier attractions is the Castle Trail – the only one of its kind in the country. There are more castles here per acre than anywhere in the UK, and the route takes in 19 impressive sites.

The Great Outdoors

Energetic visitors are well catered for in Aberdeenshire with a long list of activities available including hiking, fishing, golf, riding, mountain-biking, gliding, skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, surfing, kiteboarding, gorge walking, zip wires and off-road driving. The Cairngorms National Park, in particular, offers year-round opportunities for adventure. In the winter visitors can experience skiing and snowboarding at two purpose built ski centres, The Lecht 2090 and Glenshee.

During the rest of the year the UK’s largest National Park offers watersports, wildlife watching, and fantastic high and low level walking and cycling routes, as well as museums, gardens, historic sites and castles. The 41-mile Deeside Way runs to Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park from the centre of Aberdeen and can be followed by hikers and cyclists.

Scotland is famous as the birthplace of golf and Aberdeenshire has two of the 10 oldest courses in the world as well as the UK’s highest golf course at Braemar in the upper reaches of Royal Deeside. Expect to find courses in splendid settings – in the city, among forests and glens, on great estates and rugged heaths, in castle grounds and alongside fast-flowing rivers, and all along the coastline.

Stonehaven Harbour

Stonehaven Harbour

Food and drink

The region offers much to enjoy on the food and drink front, and is known for the delicious fresh bounty of its seas, rivers, fields, forests and moors. Local specialities include the Aberdeen rowie or buttery (a croissant style pastry), Aberdeen Angus, seafood, gin and craft beer and, of course, whisky.

Aberdeen itself has many good restaurants including Moonfish Café in the city centre, whose head chef was runner up on television’s MasterChef: The Professionals. Another restaurant to consider is The Silver Darling – a former Customs House at the mouth of Aberdeen Harbour, which has panoramic views of the waterfront and serves local produce such as Aberdeen Angus Beef, fish and shellfish dishes. If you’re lucky, you may see dolphins and seals whilst enjoying your food. Silver Darling, by the way, is the local name for herring.

There are top-notch restaurants in even the smallest villages these days, such as Eat on the Green in the quaint village of Udny Green north of Aberdeen. Owner Craig Wilson is known as The Kilted Chef and has received wide recognition and many industry awards.

Aberdeenshire has seven whisky distilleries which groups can visit. Collectively known as the “Secret Malts” of Aberdeenshire, they include Glen Garioch near Aberdeen, Ardmore and Royal Lochnagar.

Help with planning

VisitAberdeenshire offers a range of complimentary services to help you plan your group trip to the area including sourcing accommodation, quotes and assistance with itinerary planning. For more information or to find out how they can help you, contact them on:

visitabdn.com grouptours@visitabdn.com

Group accommodation

City centre boutique hotels, country houses, deep in the Scottish glens, coastal glamping sites, and castles both famous and almost undiscovered are ready to offer a warm welcome to groups of all sizes and at all budgets. Here is just a sample of some of the immense variety on offer.

Sandman Signature Hotel in Aberdeen is a new 218 bed hotel and restaurant in the centre of the city, close to museums and parks, Union Street (for the shops) and the quayside. The hotel is part of Aberdeen’s granite conservation area and is one of the largest granite buildings in the world. Of perhaps special interest is the city’s first premium whisky lounge, Freedom An’ Whisky, within the hotel’s Chop Grill and Bar restaurant. It has an extensive menu which boasts over 150 premium single malts, sourced from Scotland’s top distilleries. From experts to first-time tasters, guests can sip on the ‘water of life’ in a traditional Scottish interior of dark wood and crackling fires.

On the Banffshire Coast, north of Aberdeen, the Sail Loft, in the pretty harbour village of Portsoy, has recently been re-developed to offer flexible self-catering accommodation for groups. The style is simple, practical, thoughtful and comfortable with all the essential facilities to allow visitors to enjoy their stay – including a wood fired hot tub, available all year round.

Twelve en-suite bedrooms are available at comedian Billy Connelly’s former mansion Candacraig in Royal Deeside – a beautiful building in the turreted Scottish baronial style dating from the 17th century.

Also in Royal Deeside is the Mill of Dess Lodge nestling in the privately owned 428 acre Lower Dess Estate, near Aboyne. The Lodge caters for all manner of outdoor pursuits with a huge drying room, boot dryers, secure storage and a rod room, and is fully staffed and catered. The maximum group size is 20.

For a comfortable country house experience, consider Maryculter House Hotel beside the River Dee, which has 40 bedrooms, and can accommodate groups of up to 60. The oldest part of the hotel dates back to 1460, and one of the later lairds of the house was Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, one of the few male passengers who survived the Titanic disaster.

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How to get there

With the importance of both international tourism and the oil industry to Aberdeenshire, this part of Scotland is very well-connected.

AIR: Aberdeen International Airport is located six miles from Aberdeen city centre with daily flights to all three London airports. The international airport also has many direct routes to most UK cities as well as key European destinations. Frequent buses run between the airport and Aberdeen city centre.

SEA: Aberdeen Ferry Terminal is located at Jamieson’s Quay directly across from the shopping centre, Union Square and Aberdeen Railway Station. Ferries travel regularly to/from the Scottish Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

RAIL: Aberdeen’s railway station is in the centre of the city, and has frequent services to and from the rest of the UK. The principal rail companies that run into the city are Scotrail and East Coast Trains. Aberdeen can also be reached overnight from London on the Caledonian Sleeper.

ROAD: Aberdeen is approximately a two and a half hour drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow and less than a three hour drive from Inverness. Towns and villages in Aberdeenshire are easy to get to by major country and main roads.

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