Discover the Spirit of Scotland

Friday, 18 August 2017

Explore Dundee, Arbroath, Elgin and Dunblane with Lifestyle blogger Sally Akins from Shropshire.

How on earth did I manage to reach 42 without ever visiting Scotland?

It was a situation that had been bothering me for some time, and one I was keen to resolve. So when I was invited to spend 5 days in Scotland, I leapt at the opportunity. My journey would take me to Dundee, Arbroath, Elgin and Dunblane, travelling across the country on ScotRail trains. My main priority was to see as much of each destination as possible in the limited time available. And as a food and travel blogger, I was also keen to sample as much of the local food as I could!

Monday - Arrival in Glasgow

My trip began with a flight up to Glasgow, and a transfer by bus to the Grand Central Hotel. This beautiful hotel is right next to Glasgow Central station, so it's very convenient if your journey starts or ends there. The hotel opened in 1883 and still feels very glamorous - think sweeping staircases, wood paneling and high ceilings. I ate in the hotel restaurant, and had a divine starter of salmon cured in The Botanist gin. I followed it with Pork Wellington, made from local pork surrounded by Campbell's of Broxburn black pudding. It was a very welcome start to my visit to Scotland.

Later that evening I settled down to a good night's sleep, excited about the journey ahead of me.

Tuesday - Glasgow to Dundee

My stay at the Grand Central Hotel included a full Scottish breakfast, so I took full advantage of this. The food at the Grand Central is excellent and I finally had my first taste of haggis and square sausage. I'm definitely planning to incorporate haggis into some recipes at home. I also enjoyed a really good coffee, and felt ready for the journey ahead of me.

The short walk from the hotel to Glasgow Queen Street station gave me a quick glimpse of Glasgow. I really wish that I'd been able to spend a little more time in Scotland, because Glasgow looked amazing. I'm sure that I'll be planning a proper visit to the city soon!

I first stopped off at the ticket office to pick up my Spirit of Scotland pass, which you can buy online or at any manned ScotRail station. For just £179, I would be able to travel on 8 out of 15 consecutive days, using ScotRail trains, coaches and ferries. You can use the Spirit of Scotland pass after 9.15am on weekdays and at any time at weekends. There are also a number of other discounts and benefits, so it's ideal for exploring Scotland.

I located my first train and settled down for the 1.5 hour journey from Glasgow to Dundee. Throughout my stay in Scotland, I was really impressed by the standard of the ScotRail service. The trains all ran on time, and they were clean and comfortable. WiFi and charging sockets on the trains make it easy to stay connected, but I spent more time watching the scenery than working!

Dundee

As I walked out of Dundee station, I was immediately greeted by the sight of RRS Discovery at the Discovery Centre. This is the ship that took Captain Scott to the Antarctic, and it's an impressive welcome to new visitors to the city. I had a short walk to the Apex City Quay Hotel where I would be spending the night. The hotel is just around the corner from HM Frigate Unicorn - one of the oldest warships in the world. Dundee is certainly a great city to visit if you're interested in maritime history!

I had arrived mid-morning so my room wasn't ready for me yet. However, the friendly staff at the hotel were happy to store my suitcase for me,so I sent out to explore the city. Dundee has a population of just under 150,000, but somehow the city feels smaller and cosier than that. It's very easy to get around the city on foot and I enjoyed my walk around the streets.

When I found out I was going to be visiting Scotland, I asked friends for suggestions of things to do during my visit. One of my friends said that I should walk to the Law to get a great view of the city. I checked Google Maps and it looked like it was about a mile from the city centre, so I headed off. Little did I realise that it's actually quite a steep hill, and gave me a fairly good workout. Looking on TripAdvisor afterwards, I discovered that most people recommend driving to the top. Ah well, the walk did me good and the view from the top was stunning!

There was a touch of drizzle in the air as I walked back down but that was quite welcome, to be honest.

I reckoned that I deserved to treat myself to some cake after that walk. The Parlour cafe was another suggestion from my friend who recommended the walk to Dundee Law. But luckily for me, this recommendation was far less painful. I enjoyed a really excellent slice of chocolate cake and coffee, which revived me ready for another walk around town. The Parlour also do a great selection of salads, sandwiches, pies etc if you have time to stop for lunch.

I enjoyed looking around Dundee, and could easily have spent another couple of days there if I'd had time. As well as the maritime attractions, there are also some really interesting museums to explore and some gorgeous architecture too.

My plan for the evening had been to walk back into town and eat at the Beer Kitchen. But when I went back to the hotel, I just felt too tired to go back out again. So I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, and had an amazing dish of lamb served with sweetbreads. That was another first, as I'd never eaten sweetbreads before- the food on this trip was turning out to be very interesting.

But the weather forecast for the next day was more of a worry. It looked like it would rain for most of the day, and that really didn't fit with my plans.

Wednesday - Dundee to Arbroath

I woke up to grey clouds and a fairly steady drizzle. It felt like a good idea to get on the move, so I decided to forego breakfast and have lunch in Arbroath. As I headed back to Dundee station, the sky grew darker and the rain started to pick up. It continued to get heavier throughout the 20 minute journey to Arbroath. By the time I got off the train, the sky was leaden and a heavy rain was falling. The forecast was now saying that the rain would last until about 4pm. Was my day going to be a complete wash-out?

Arbroath

The walk from Arbroath station to my hotel took just 10 minutes, but I hardly saw any of the town. I pulled my hood down over my eyes and kept my head down, as I walked into rain that was coming down practically sideways. By the time I reached the hotel, my jeans and coat were soaked through.

But I received such a fantastic welcome at The Old Brewhouse that my mood lifted immediately. They took my case, brought over a coffee, and showed me where I could wait until my room was ready.. The Old Brewhouse has a cosy little restaurant, and as the weather looked fairly set, I decided to try their £15 two course lunch. I started with a bowl of thick, warming Broccoli and Stilton soup, followed by a rich, cheesy Lasagne. Both were home-made, and both were completely delicious.

After lunch my room was ready, so I headed upstairs to look around. My room was gorgeous, very light and airy and spotlessly clean. With a comfortable king sized bed and crisp cotton bed linen, it definitely felt more luxury hotel than B&B.

I may have had a little nap at that point.

Around 3pm the rain stopped but the clouds still covered the sky. However, just five minutes later I could see blues skies and sunshine through my window. It was time to explore the town. Arbroath is a gorgeous small town, with a history heavily based on the fishing industry. I walked along the sea front, breathing in the salty sea air. The waves were still pretty strong and some made it over the harbour wall, catching some people by surprise.

I love being in the city and in the countryside, but visiting Arbroath definitely reminded me that the coast is my favourite place to be. Being by the sea always improves my mood, and I felt so utterly relaxed looking out over Arbroath harbour.

My plan had been to walk along the cliff path, and then visit Vin-Tealicious, a vintage inspired tearoom. But with the weather still looking changeable, I decided that the cliff path walk was probably not going to happen. Instead I walked to the Signal Tower museum for a quick look around, then headed up to the Polish Gift to Abroath for a better view over the bay.

Next on my list was a visit to Arbroath Abbey, a site of great historical significance dating from the 12th century. If you plan to visit the abbey, do make sure you check the opening times first. Unfortunately I had just missed closing time, so I headed back to the harbour via the town centre. The weather was absolutely gorgeous by now, and it seemed a shame to go back inside to eat. And when you're by the seaside, what could be better than a fish supper?

A quick check on Google showed that Marco's on the Shore is highly recommended so I joined the queue in there. It was very busy for a good reason - their fish and chips was probably the best I've ever had. And eating them by the sea front just made the evening perfect.

Thursday - Abroath to Elgin

I'm not sure if it was the sea air or the fantastic bed, but I slept incredibly well at the Old Brewhouse. I woke feeling really refreshed and headed down for breakfast. And what else could I have for breakfast but an Arbroath Smokie. This smoked haddock is a local speciality, and I had never tried one before so this was my chance. My Smokie was served with scrambled eggs that were both creamy and light. I really wish I'd asked for the recipe!

It was a delicious start to the day and after one last walk along the sea front, I collected my case and headed to the station. I felt sad to be leaving Arbroath after just one day, but I know that I'll definitely go back soon.

So next on my itinerary was a two and a half hour journey to Elgin. As the train was fairly busy, all of the tables had been taken so I sat in one of the airplane-style seats. And rather than getting my laptop out and working, I decided to just sit back and relax. It made a lovely change from sitting behind the steering wheel, having to focus on the road and other cars. As I soaked up the ever-changing landscape, the dramatic coastline around Arbroath was soon replaced by rolling fields and hills.

The sky was changing as well, with dark grey clouds looming up behind the train as it raced along. I wondered whether I'd manage to get to Elgin before the rain set in.

Elgin

I arrived at Elgin 1.30, having eaten lunch on the train to save time. My home for the night was the Laichmoray hotel, just 5-10 minutes walk from Elginstation. The Laichmoray is a very dramatic looking hotel, which first opened in 1853. The friendly staff at reception made me feel very much at home.

I'd planned a few things that I wanted to do in Elgin, but with the clouds were still looking fairly menacing, I had half an eye on the weather. I'd asked a friend for some suggestions, and she'd recommended heading up to Lady Hill first, then walking down the High Street towards Elgin Cathedral ruins. I would also have liked to visit Johnston's cashmere mill and the Glen Moray distillery. But time was short and I didn't want to spend time indoors when the weather was still dry.

After scaling the Dundee Law, walking up Lady Hill felt like a relaxed stroll. But it's worth heading up there to see the ruins of Elgin castle at the top, and you also get a great view out over the town.

Elgin is a former cathedral city and as I walked down through the town, it felt very big and bustling after Arbroath. In reality though, the town centre is quite compact and easy to get around. I had just made it past the imposing St Giles' church in the town centre when the rain finally came. Luckily, I remembered that my friend had recommended visiting the Pancake Place for lunch. As it is right by St Giles', it seemed like the ideal place to wait for the rain to pass. I ordered a Banoffee stack of pancakes - they were absolutely gorgeous but far too much for me! By the time I'd eaten what I could, the rain had stopped and I could continue my walk to Elgin Cathedral.

It was 4pm when I reached the cathedral and luckily it was still open. After missing out on Arbroath Abbey, I decided to have a proper look around. Elgin Cathedral was originally established in the 13th century, and fell into disrepair after the Reformation in the 16th century. The ruins make it a beautiful place to walk around, and it feels very peaceful. There are many exhibits in the cathedral's towers, which explore its history. You can also climb up to a viewing platform at the top of one of the two towers. I went quite far up but couldn't quite make it out onto the tower top!

I decided to eat in town that evening, and found that The Drouthy Cobbler came highly recommended on TripAdvisor. It's a lovely little restaurant with a very vibrant atmosphere. Even at 6pm it was packed, but luckily they managed to squeeze me in. I had a very pretty and delicious starter of seared scallops with pancetta, black pudding and pea puree. Then I followed that with probably the best steak that I've ever had in the UK - tender, full of flavour and cooked to perfection. If you want to try it for yourself, I'd probably recommend phoning ahead to reserve a table.

Back at the Laichmoray hotel, I felt that I had to pay their bar a visit. It has a selection of over 130 whiskies, and I couldn't visit Scotland without having a whisky or two. I tried the locally distilled Linkwood 15 year old single malt. It was very smooth, with flavours of vanilla, buttery oak and toffee. I also tried a very smooth 18 year old Glendronach, which may even have been better than the Linkwood.

Friday - Elgin to Dunblane

I woke early again, ready to head to the last stop on my tour. My original plan was to get the late morning train to Dunblane via Aberdeen and Perth. It's a fairly long journey, around four and a half hours, and there aren't many trains stopping at Dunblane each day. You don't need to reserve seats on the trains when you're using the Spirit of Scotland pass. But it's worth making a rough schedule for your journey, because some stations only have a limited service.

Then I got a text from another friend. 'Have you tried Cullen Skink yet?' - well, I had to admit that I hadn't. She recommended that I stop off in Aberdeen and pay a visit to Cafe52. A quick check of the ScotRail website showed that I could easily do that, so I changed my plans. The flexibility of the Spirit of Scotland pass is definitely one of its big benefits. There's no problems if you decide to spend an extra night in a town, or divert via a different route.

It was easy to use the ScotRail website to check train times, and there are apps for Android and iOS as well. So the plan now was to catch the early train to Aberdeen, stow my suitcase in the Left Luggage office (a bit of a bargain at £2) and then have lunch at Cafe52 before getting the 1.30 train to Perth.

Cafe52 is about five minutes walk from Aberdeen station and has been operating in the same location for 25 years. It has friendly staff, very cool decor and excellent food. I went for a small bowl of the Cullen Skink with half a sandwich of smoked sausage, crispy bacon and goat's cheese. I only wish I had ordered a larger bowl of the Skink, because it was so creamy and delicious. It would have been nice to linger a while over lunch, but unfortunately time was not on my side. Aberdeen is a city that I definitely need to explore properly on my next visit!

After my train to Perth, I only had a short wait for my connecting train to Dunblane.

Dunblane

Dunblane was a wonderful location to wrap up my first visit to Scotland,and as soon as I left Dunblane station I could see the pretty town centre. Google Maps told me that it was only around half a mile to the DoubleTree by Hilton Dunblane-Hydro where I would be staying the night, so I decided not to get a taxi. Big mistake…

What Google failed to tell me is that the hotel sits on top of a big hill. I walked through the town and up the hotel's sweeping driveway, dragging my case behind me. But when I reached the top, the stunning view out over the town soon made me forget the tiring walk. I checked into the hotel and as time was running short, I walked straight back down into town.

I'm a huge tennis fan, although I have to confess that I cheer for Roger Federer rather than Andy Murray. But even so, actually visiting Murray's home town was really exciting for me. I definitely wanted to see the tennis club where he learned to play, and of course the gold postbox commemorating his Olympic gold medal. But I was also very keen to look around the rest of the town. Dunblane has a beautiful Cathedral, which unfortunately had already closed for the day by the time I reached it. There are winding lanes and charming buildings, and the Allan Water (River Allan) running through the centre of town. That would have made for a lovely walk if time had allowed, perhaps finishing up with dinner at the Riverside Inn.

But the rain clouds were looming once again, so I decided to head back and eat in the hotel restaurant. Nick Nairn designed the Kailyard's menu, and it was very hard to choose from it! I eventually plumped for a beautiful starter of red braised pork cheek with sticky rice, followed by steak with a whisky sauce. I'd never tried pork cheek before, and it was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. The service in the restaurant was impeccable, as was the service throughout the hotel. They really make you feel like no request is too much trouble, and the facilities were very high quality as well.

Saturday - Dunblane to Glasgow and home.

After another fantastic night's sleep, I woke up with very mixed feelings on my last morning in Scotland. On one hand, I was really looking forward to seeing my family and dog again, but I couldn't help but feel sad to be leaving Scotland. I ate an excellent breakfast in the Kailyard restaurant, and then took the short taxi ride back to Dunblane station. I'd learned my lesson from yesterday!

My final train took me on the 1.5 hour journey back to Glasgow. It gave me time to think about the past five days, and everything I'd experienced. The wonderful friendly welcome I'd received at each stop, the beautiful views I'd seen, and of course the phenomenal food I'd eaten. Seriously, for a food-lover like me, this week had been out of this world. I also loved the experience of travelling around by train. It feels like a much more laid-back way to see the country than driving.

It might have taken me 42 years to pay my first visit to Scotland, but I know I'll be back again soon. Not only to spend more time in the places I've already visited, but also to explore the rest of the country. My first visit has whetted my appetite, and I'm itching to return already.

Sally Akins is a food, travel and lifestyle blogger who loves making the most of life. Check out her blog, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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