As an avid train buff, when I recently received an invite to join The Royal Scotsman luxury train departing from our Edinburgh, it was a no-brainer.
OK, so I already knew the journey inside out, but never before have I travelled from Edinburgh to Boat of Garten, Inverness, Dundee and back in such style, and this was about the train experience for me as much as the scenery.
As the train is run by Orient Express you can imagine the spoiling on board, and everything is included in the up-front price.
At Waverley station those travelling in the manner I normally do (2nd class on Scotrail) stopped to stare at the gleaming burgundy carriages and the well-clad lucky folk boarding the UK’s only luxury sleeper train.
The house-party on rails had a cosmopolitan clientele: American, Canadian, English and Brazilian. Oh and me, the only Scot on board this time, though take note, it’s the perfect treat especially for non-flyers for special birthdays or anniversaries.
Before we even pulled out of the station we were served glasses of champagne and invited to sink back into the sofas in the observation car.
Everyone was keen to be sociable and swap backgrounds and travel tales and by the time we’d reached Boat of Garten we were gabbing away like we’d known each other for years.
This was, undoubtedly, helped by the fact that the wonderful staff ply you with whatever your poison is, and for visitors the attraction of the massive malt whisky collection on board proved very tempting!
The train is superbly comfortable, both the public areas and the cabins. There are 14 twin, two double and four single State Cabins, beautifully fitted out in rich marquetry and en-suite.
Our Host was the charming Stephen Kennedy and our Train Manager Michael Andrews. Both, along with their well-trained staff, were truly faultless in ensuring everyone on board was attended to every minute of the day and night. Not even the best five star hotels in the world offer service like this.
At one end of the train is the open-ended observation car that can accommodate up to 36 guests at any time in armchairs, and this is very much the social hub of the train.
At 8pm you enter the two elegant wood-panelled dining cars, all set with candles, fine bone china and crystal. It’s open seating so meals are very sociable affairs.
The cuisine style is modern Scottish with regional specialities such as Dingwall black pudding, haggis, Highland venison, monkfish from Mallaig and Buccleuch beef. The standard is truly magnificent.
There were different wines to complement the food. Coffee, cheese, truffles and after dinner drinks are served back in the observation car.
On night one we had Andy and Colin two excellent musicians who had us all singing along and joining in some superb keyboard and guitar traditional entertainment.
If you’re the type that finds it hard to nod off on a moving train, fear not. Every evening the Royal Scotsman stops in a quiet siding until morning, giving a good night’s unshaken rest.
Our destination that evening was the peaceful Highland village of Boat of Garten on the private Strathspey Railway.
On day two we travelled by coach to the wonderful outdoor playground that is Rothiemurchus Estate.
As most of us know, Rothiemurchus Forest is one of the largest and most important remnants of the native Caledonian pine forest and here you select from a number of activities including clay pigeon shooting, fishing or a guided tour of the Estate with one of the Park Rangers.
Afterwards, you can enjoy a warm welcome from your hosts as refreshments are served in their hunting lodge.
You then return to the train for lunch before disembarking to visit Culloden Battlefield, site of the last major battle fought on British soil on April 16, 1746.
Here you’ll have your own Jacobean-clad historian as a guide. Ray Owens paints a vivid picture of how this battle changed the way of life in the Highlands forever.
Each time you re-enter the train the staff are on hand with a welcome back drink whisky toddie, Kir Royale the list goes on. It’s this level of attention that makes it all so special.
From Nairn you travel to Keith and enjoy a private visit to Strath-isla Distillery, the oldest and one of the most picturesque working distilleries in the Highlands, and home to one of Scotland’s most famous whiskies, Chivas Regal.
Dinner is formal this evening (lots of foreigners hire kilts!) and afterwards you are invited to enjoy more traditional Scottish music. We ended the night dancing Strip The Willow on the platform (deserted, thankfully) in Dundee station!
On day three breakfast is served as the train leaves DC Thomson’s home city and we travelled south into Waverley Station where we all reluctantly disembarked.
Let me tell you, the whole experience made you proud to be Scottish (and makes going on Scotrail again very hard indeed!)!
As a final adieu you find a silver quaich on your bed just one of many superb touches that the Royal Scotsman offers.