IT’S one of the greatest railway journeys in the world.
The Jacobite steam train is an 84-mile round trip of jaw-dropping extremes.
From Fort William to Mallaig and back again, this six-hour excursion takes in Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis, and Europe’s deepest salt water lake, Loch Nevis.
It also crosses the towering, 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct –spectacularly featured in the film Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.
And that’s why we’re here.
My 11-year-old wants to travel the route made famous when young wizard Harry and sidekick Ron Weasley fly their Ford Anglia to the viaduct to catch up with the Hogwarts Express.
“They missed boarding the train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry because the barrier was down,” she is explaining, breathless with excitement as we climb into the sumptuous 1940s-style first-class carriage.
We’re in the company of Harry Potter fans from around the globe – including a grown-up contingent from China, spectacularly dressed in wizard’s robes.
There are kids with mums and dads and grannies and grandpas sporting Gryffindor and Slytherin scarves and even a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary.
Smoke belches from the engine ahead of us as a whistle blows and we’re off on our very own Hogwarts Express.
The vintage steam train has to work hard on this route, notorious for its challenging gradients and curves. And boy, does she deliver!
“Chugga, chugga, chugga”, sounds the boiler, “clickety-clack, clickety-clack” go the wheels on the track as we rock gently while tea is served – in china cups, of course.
Peering through a veil of smoke we marvel at some of Scotland’s awe-inspiring scenery.
Craggy peaks power into view, beautifully mirrored in deep, still lochs, and rock-strewn moorland cloaked in winter greys and golds slips by before the silvery sands of the enchanting and deserted beaches of Morar emerge, as magically as Hogwarts itself.
But the showstopper is the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
It sits majestically at the head of Loch Shiel, a seemingly endless body of water that stretches 20 miles to Acharacle. The viaduct is a magnificent feat of engineering, spanning 1000ft and standing 100ft above the ground.
“Wow!” gasps my wee one. I know what she means.
A brief stop at Glenfinnan Station allows us to visit its quaint museum (50p entry to Jacobite passengers, free for kids) and to take advantage of the on-board shop, packed with Potter goodies.
Then it’s on to Mallaig.
Founded in the 1840s, this little fishing port is also the ferry terminal for services to Skye and the Small Isles.
Western Isles Cruises, based on the quayside, also offer ferry services to Knoydart – Europe’s last great wilderness – along with wildlife trips and RIB (Rigid-hulled Inflatabe Boat) adventures.
Even in winter the village teems with visitors and there are enough shops, restaurants, cafes, and pubs to keep all entertained.
We have just enough time to stroll around and enjoy lunch before boarding the train for our return journey to Fort William, Britain’s outdoor adventure capital.
Sitting at the southern end of The Great Glen, in the shadow of Ben Nevis, it’s the perfect base from which to explore the region.
Our home for the weekend is the three-star Ben Nevis Hotel, with mountain views.
The hotel has a lounge bar, restaurant and pool with hot tub, sauna, steam room and gym. And it’s dog friendly.
We enjoy a leisurely swim and luxuriate in the spa, chatting to contented guests who have been using this place for their holidays for decades.
We’re up bright and early the next day to experience Britain’s only mountain gondola (cable car) which is a short drive from the hotel.
It effortlessly travels more than 2000ft up the mountain of Aonach Mor and offers breathtaking views.
This mountain range is a mecca in winter for snow sports enthusiasts, and a year-round destination for climbers and hikers.
It also offers great mountain biking, a tree-top high rope course and forest walks. And there is a children’s play park and a free tubing slide.
There are a wealth of attractions in Fort William and Lochaber and we’re beginning to wish that we’d booked a longer stay.
Oh for a wizard’s wand to whisk us back again.
A two-night stay in a twin room at the Ben Nevis Hotel and Leisure Club in Fort William cost £115, B&B. Call 01397 702331 strathmorehotels-thebennevis.com
Two return tickets in a first-class compartment on The Jacobite Steam Train (inc tea) cost £91 plus a £3.25 booking fee. 0844 850 4685 westcoastrailways.co.uk
For Jushef’s Taxi in Fort William, call 01397 701234