REVIEW: A Canadian’s first trip to Royal Deeside

Megan Amato visits Ballater on Royal Deeside for the first time.

ON THE east side of the Cairngorms National Park, the “Snow Roads” connects two picturesque and now-thriving villages – Ballater and Braemar – but that wasn’t always the case. Like many rural communities, the area best known for being home to Balmoral Castle, the late Queen’s much-loved Scottish residence, suffered from an ageing population due to lack of jobs. However, the area has been revived these past few years, largely thanks to the purchase and renovation of the decadent Fife Arms Hotel.

Nestled in a bend on the River Dee, east of the Cairngorm Mountains, is Ballater; a large and attractive village lined with trees and bustling high streets with local and independent shops and cafes – including the best ice cream parlour, Shorty’s, according to a friend who grew up in the area. I couldn’t confirm due to a dairy intolerance, but its scent taunted me as I passed by.

Thanks to the folk at Visit Ballater, we were shown around the area on top-of-market mountain bikes – which cost more than some people’s first car and made my clumsy self nervous – courtesy of Richard from Cycle Highlands. The shop sells top-of-the-line bikes, offers a repair service as well as bike hires for those keen on exploring the area in comfort and style.

Richard grew up in Ballater and is very knowledgeable about the area’s history and highlights. He kindly pointed out features of local interest as we peddled through Ballater, including the Victorian Old Royal Station and Highland games pavilion.

We cycled leisurely along the old Deeside railway line paved path with the Cairngorm mountains as a backdrop against picturesque blue, cloudy skies. Coming from Vancouver, these mountains may seem less grand on first glance, but there is something that feels so magical about them.

Our tour stopped at Cambus O’May Cheese & Milk Hoose Café, which was opened in 2009 by Alex Reid, featuring cheese inspired by his mother’s traditional North-East recipes. After a tour around the small but well-run creamery from the knowledgeable and affable Ian, I put my lactose intolerance aside to sample what they had to offer and mostly did not regret it. I especially recommend their rich and nutty Auld Lochnagar or their lemony Lairig Ghru.

After cycling back to the village and saying goodbye to Richard, we drove up the hill to the tree-enshrouded Darroch Learg. The family-run hotel managed to feel both homey and classy, offering comfort and understated hospitality with friendly service. We stayed in its master suite, which had stunning views of the forested hills and slept comfortably that night.

After breakfast the next morning, we drove halfway to Braemar and were picked up by Simon from Yellow Welly Tours. Keen on meeting and speaking to people from all over the world, Simon creates memorable and personalised itineraries to suit his guests’ interests and abilities.

Bolstered by his enthusiastic understanding of the area’s culture and history, we were taken on a tour through the forested region with its Jacobite history, royal connections, and local eccentricities – including a miniature garden train, an artsy honesty box, and architecture he both admired and loathed. We stopped at Mar Lodge with its fascinating history of ownership and successful regeneration story of the woodlands surrounding the estate, and were dropped off with walking sticks near the Linn of Dee.

After lunch at the fabulous Tarmachan Café, we visited the Royal Lochnagar distillery and were given a full tour from an member of staff who had worked at Lochnagar most of her working life and was still passionate about the distillery, and sampled a range of their spirits.

As the non-driver, I felt light on my feet as we toured the lovely village of Braemar and its many craft shops, stopping in my favourite place of the day: Braemar Chocolate Shop. Former army master chef Dave and his wife, Cathy, began their chocolate journey in Shetland before moving to Braemar to create uniquely Scottish chocolate. The couple make all their chocolate in their tiny but efficient shop kitchen, and test out different sustainable and local ingredients to create distinct and mouth-watering chocolate. My favourite was the fresh mint and juniper praline, but make sure to try the port and Blue Murder truffle too.

After dinner at the Cairn Grill, we drove back to Ballater, now intimate with the strip of road between the two. We took an evening stroll through the village, quieter than the day but not silent and, with all the stories of change we had heard over the last two days, wondered what the village had been like even ten years ago.

We had an early-ish start the following morning with a walking tour around Creag Choinnich, where we searched for red squirrels and examined a bug hotel. Our capable guide Annie from Wild Braemar – who also does wild swimming tours – pointed out the local flora and fauna as walked among the Scots pine, oak and birch covered mountains to the Queen’s drive and then along the River Clunie.  We ended the walk at the Braemar Highland Games Centre – known for hosting the royal family – learned about its history and benefactors as we toured its visitor centre.

Per the recommendation from our lovely host at Darroch Learg, we took a drive to Loch Muick and strolled among its rocky, mountainous banks with the sound of a cuckoo calling in the backgroumd.

As two people who had never properly visited the Cairngorms before, we were truly privileged to be shown around Ballater and Braemar through the eyes of several experienced and hospitable locals. Blessed with stunning sunny weather and subsequent views, the three-day trip will be one to remember.

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