Rising high in the heather-clad hills above remote Loch Laggan, forty miles south of Inverness, the River Spey, Scotland’s second longest river, drains northeast towards the Moray Firth through one of the Highlands’ most spellbinding valleys. Famous for its ancient forests, salmon fishing and ospreys, the area around the upper section of the river, known as Strathspey, is dominated by the sculpted Cairngorms, Britain’s most extensive mountain massif, unique in supporting subarctic tundra on its high plateau. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to the area to take advantage of the superb hiking, water sports and winter snows, aided by the fact that the area is easily accessible by road and rail from both central Scotland and Inverness. A string of villages along the river provide useful bases for setting out into the wilder country, principal among them Aviemore.
The Moray Firth, a great wedge-shaped bay forming the eastern coastline of the Highlands, is one of only three areas of UK waters that support a resident population of dolphins. More than a hundred of these beautiful, intelligent marine mammals live in the estuary, the most northerly breeding-ground in Europe for this particular species – the bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) – and you stand a good chance of spotting a few, either from the shore or a boat.
One of the best places in Scotland, if not in Europe, to look for them is Chanonry Point, on the Black Isle – a spit of sand protruding into a narrow, deep channel, where converging currents bring fish close to the surface, and thus the dolphins close to shore; a rising tide is the most likely time to see them. Kessock Bridge, a mile north of Inverness, is another prime dolphin-spotting location. You can go all the way down to the beach at the small village of North Kessock, underneath the road bridge or stop above the village in a car park just off the A9 at the Dolphin and Seal Visitor Centre and listening post, run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), where hydrophones allow you to eavesdrop on the clicks and whistles of underwater conversations.
Several companies run dolphin-spotting boat trips around the Moray Firth. However, researchers claim that the increased traffic is causing the dolphins unnecessary stress, particularly during the all-important breeding period when passing vessels are thought to force calves underwater for uncomfortably long periods, so if you decide to go on a cruise to see the dolphins – and perhaps minke whales, porpoises, seals and otters – make sure the operator is a member of the Dolphin Space Programme’s accreditation scheme. Trips are very popular, so book well in advance.
The Cairngorms National Park covers some 1500 square miles and incorporates the Cairngorms massif, the UK’s largest mountainscape and only sizeable plateau over 2500ft. While Aviemore and the surrounding area is the main point of entry, particularly for those planning outdoor activities, it’s also possible to access the eastern side of the park from both Deeside and Donside in Aberdeenshire. There are 52 summits higher than 2953ft in the park, as well as a quarter of Scotland’s native woodland, and a quarter of the UK’s threatened wildlife species. Vegetation ranges from one of the largest tracts of ancient Caledonian pine and birch forest remaining in Scotland, at Rothiemurchus, to subarctic tundra on the high plateau, where alpine flora such as starry saxifrage and the star-shaped pink flowers of moss campion peek out of the pink granite in the few months of summer that the ground is free of snow. Birds of prey you’re most likely to see are the osprey, especially at Loch Garten’s osprey observation centre, or fishing on the lochs around Aviemore.