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Travel: Oh, we do like to be beside the Deeside in Ballater

© SYSTEMBridge over Loch Muick, Aberdeenshire
Bridge over Loch Muick, Aberdeenshire

The winter sun casts cloud shadows that scud across the hills while the wind whips the surface of dark Loch Muick below.

There’s not another soul in sight and we stand in silent awe, stunned by the majesty of the landscape.

We’re not the first to have been arrested by this view. In 1807, poet Lord George Gordon Byron penned Dark Lochnagar, a love letter to his cherished childhood haunt in the Aberdeenshire highlands.

Loch Muick and Lochnagar, a towering 3,789ft Munro, are the jewels in the crown of Balmoral Estate, the royal family’s country home near Ballater.

Queen Victoria so loved this spot, in 1868 she built Glas-allt-Shiel lodge on the loch’s shore as her “widow’s house” – the haven in which she could hide from the world while mourning the death of her cherished husband Albert.

Fast forward a century and her great-great-great grandson, King Charles III, made it the setting for his 1980 children’s book,The Old Man Of Lochnagar.

The Lochnagar and Loch Muick Circular Walk is a long, arduous adventure in Cairngorms National Park taking in Cac Carn Mor, Lochnagar, Carn a’ Coire Boidheach, Càrn an t’Sagairt Mòr, Cairn Bannoch, and Broad Cairn, before walking the shoreline of Loch Muick. Around 18 miles this hike can take up to 12 hours, and winter hill walking experience and the right equipment are essential.

There is an easier and equally enjoyable route. A 7.5-mile loch-side trek starts at the Balmoral Estate visitor centre near its car park. The path takes walkers to Queen Victoria’s former retreat and offers a chance to see the Glas Allt Shiel waterfalls, along with some wonderful wildlife like red deer, red squirrel and oyster catchers.

We based ourselves in the heart of the village of Ballater, which became the focus of the world when 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth died at nearby Balmoral Castle on September 8 after 70 years on the throne. Her son, King Charles, chose Balmoral as the location in which to remember his mother, seeking solace in these very hills during his official period of mourning.

The village – much loved by the late Queen – remains a home from home for her son and his Queen Consort, Camilla, who are familiar faces on its streets.

The Balmoral Arms, our home for the weekend, is about an hour from Aberdeen. Formerly the Deeside Inn, it was recently given a £2.2 million facelift.

After our day in the glens, we enjoyed the luxury of The Balmoral Suite with views over the village square and to the hills beyond. As I luxuriated in a warm bubble bath (while sipping bubbles of another kind), hubby enjoyed a pre-dinner dram (and nap) on the sofa.

Fully revitalised we headed to the The Ghillies’ Bar, with its rustic yet stylish interior roaring fire, live music, and more than 100 malts and gins distilled in Scotland it’s the perfect place to hang out. Time it right (every other Thursday evening) and you’ll be treated to a fiddle-fest by one of Scotland’s most renowned fiddlers, Paul Anderson who has performed for the now King and Sean Connery.

The Ghillies Bar also offers tasty traditional Scottish suppers, but we’d decided to try 1852, the hotel’s new restaurant, a nod to the year in which Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria. Head chef Gary Quinn’s menu showcases local specialities including beef and game and seafood from the North Sea. We enjoyed Beef Wellington served pink with chive mash, seasonal vegetables and a rich bone marrow gravy and from the grill a juicy, eight-ounce fillet steak with all the trimmings – delicious!

After dinner, we retreated to the lounge and a seat beside the large log fire, where, sipping fine malt whisky, we were thoroughly spoiled by attentive staff well versed in traditional Highland hospitality.

There’s so much to see and do on Royal Deeside – from fishing on the River Dee to golfing, shopping in Ballater’s pretty boutique shops, touring Balmoral Castle and Estate and the nearby Lochnagar Distillery – it warrants a return visit.

And at the Balmoral Arms guests can bet on being treated like royalty.


P.S.

The Balmoral Arms offers a Victorian Afternoon Tea with traditional treats that can be upgraded with Champagne or cocktails. Served daily, 12pm-4pm, it costs from £24 per person.

Factfile 

Bed and Breakfast at the Balmoral Arms costs from £107. Visit crerarhotels.com/balmoral-arms/ or call 01339 755 413