Wild landscapes and deserted beaches. Fine food and outdoor adventure. Deer, dolphins and mythical monsters. As Rough Guides contributor Keith Drew discovered, the Scottish Highlands have all the ingredients for a family holiday to remember. Read on to discover his top things to do in the Highlands. You might also want to discover the most beautiful places in Scotland, as voted by Rough Guides readers.
Things to do in the highlands
1. Row, row, row your boat
Where better to start your family sortie into the Highlands than at Scotland's most picturesque loch? Ferries connect some of Loch Lomond's islands to its bonnie, bonnie banks, but it's more fun to hire a traditional clinker boat from Balmaha Boatyard, on the loch's quieter eastern side, and row yourselves out to Inchailloch, the closest island.
Lomond is pleasantly placid, and on a sunny day the trip can be quite idyllic, your oars breaking the surface with a hypnotic splosh and little hands trailing through the tinkling waters.
Allow two or three hours, as there's plenty to do once you're on dry land, including following a nature trail to a beach on the island's southern tip that makes a perfect spot for a picnic and a paddle.
2. Reach for the skies
There are more scenic hikes in the Highlands than you can shake a (Pooh) stick at. But you could easily be forgiven for thinking that, with kids in tow, the finest viewpoints are well out of reach.
Jaw-dropping vistas need not be the preserve of Munro-bagging mountain types, though: a lazy ascent 2,000ft up the side of Aonach Mhor on the Nevis Range gondola will drop you into their domain in a few effortless minutes.
The sheer novelty of gliding over the trees is worth the ticket price alone for most, although the views from the top are naturally magnificent – the sweeping panorama from Sigurr Finnis-aig, an easy walk from the gondola station, takes in Loch Linnhe, the Great Glen and the back of snow-capped Ben Nevis. Older children can mountain-bike back down on a number of trails, including (for experienced riders) the UK's only World Cup Downhill track.
3. A day with the fairies
That’s not to say that hiking should be off the menu entirely. One of the best walks on Skye, an island not short of trails, is a fairly easy-going 30-minute ramble up to the aptly named Fairy Pools.
The setting is superb, a series of staggered cascades shadowed by the craggy pinnacles of the Black Cuillin mountains, and the pools themselves are so clear the water takes on a hue of translucent turquoise.
A few river crossings (over stepping stones) en route add to the adventure, and several of the pools are deep enough to swim in, if you’re brave enough to tackle the icy temperatures.
Further north, and well worth the diversion if you’re circuiting Skye, the peculiar cone-shaped knolls and eroded rock formations of the Fairy Glen look like they’re straight out of The Hobbit.
The curious landscape is essentially one big natural playground, great for exploration and game of hide and seek – and for imagining that you’re Bilbo Baggins.
4. B... is for beaches
They might not immediately spring to mind as some of Scotland’s must-visit places, but with nigh on a thousand miles of snaking coastline, beach combing is one of the best things to do in the Highlands.
The strip of bone-white sand at Camusdarach is a lovely place to picnic en route to Skye. Isolated Redpoint, very much the end of the road in remotest Wester Ross, gloriously lives up to its name at sunset, when the sands glow the deepest of oranges. And the powdery beach at Sanna Bay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, often completely deserted, gazes out across the sea to the islands of Muck and Eigg.
5. C... is for campervanning
And for convenience. Anyone who's done any kind of road trip with a young family knows that the constant packing and unpacking at each stop along the way can quickly grow tiring. Take this out of the equation by hiring a campervan (Bunk Campers have an excellent range). It offers a little extra space, the opportunity to cook your own meals and – in Scotland, unlike anywhere else in the UK – the flexibility of parking up for the night pretty much wherever you want. Few things, for adults as well as children, can beat waking up by the side of a glassy loch or at the foot of a brooding mountain.
6. Where the wild things are
The Highlands' gorse-covered hills, Caledonian forests, shimmering lochs and rugged shoreline harbour some of the country's most spectacular animals. Armed with just a pair of binoculars – often a novelty in itself – children can tick off a flock of fearsome-looking raptors, including golden eagles, red kites and iconic ospreys.
At the Kylerhea Otter Haven on Skye, you're pretty much guaranteed to catch a sight of seals bobbing in the water, while the otters themselves can (hopefully) be spotted lolloping along the beach from a hide a half-hour walk along a beautiful coastal track.
The wildlife highlight comes at blustery Chanonry Point, a spit of shingle poking into the Moray Firth just north of Inverness. Here, the UK's largest population of bottlenose dolphins swim within a few yards of the shore, jumping and frolicking as they chase mackerel on the high tide.
7. Monsters, Inc.
It's touristy, yes, and verging on kitsch in parts, but Kylerhea Otter Havenis difficult to resist all the same. Skip the jaded theme parks that make up the main town of Drumnadrochit and get out onto the water itself. Most cruises spend an hour or so "hunting" for Nessie, and it can be quite exciting checking the radar for blips and scanning the sonar screens for ominous-looking shapes. On some cruises, children also get to sit at the wheel and "steer" the boat past the ruins of Urquhart Castle.
Monsters or no, Loch Ness is undeniably impressive: it's 23 miles long (37km) and, reaching a depth of 812 feet in parts (243m), twice as deep as the North Sea. And when the waters are atmospherically shrouded in mist, it doesn’t take too much to imagine that there might just be a monster lurking somewhere in its depths.