ELIE, Scotland - The weather in this lovely seaside village on Scotland's east coast, not far from the golfing mecca of St. Andrews, was about as inhospitable as it could be for early November.
The wind whipped the sea into a frenzy, sending whitecaps ashore; a misty rain leaked from a leaden sky; and icy pellets of hail showered down like miniature daggers.
So what was I doing, layered up like the Michelin tire man, ambling along the beach with seven other women and a frisky black Labrador retriever named Hooley?
We were here with “Forage Ranger” Fiona Houston, a journalist and local-food advocate, to learn about the edible delights found on the coast this time of year, including oysters and varieties of kelp and seaweed. Our tour was intended to be a “walk, talk, taste” experience, but after 20 minutes of being buffeted by the wind and bruised by the ice pellets, we chose to talk while we walked to the nearest pub to do our tasting there. Only Hooley seemed disappointed.
Inside the cozy confines of The Ship Inn, a fire blazed, a pint appeared in my hand, and a gent sitting on a bar stool, nursing his own beer, swiveled around to address me.
“Are ye daft, lass, wandering around on the beach in weather such as this?” he asked.
For the record, I didn’t think I appeared any more daft than the others, but he seemed to take a shine to me.
I had come to Scotland for what was billed as a “glam, green experience,” to discover that you don’t have to sacrifice the glamour to appreciate the green. Indeed, Scotland has led the United Kingdom in sustainability, alternately caring for and making use of the natural environment in unique ways.
During the next six days, I would meet a chocolatier who infuses her candies with rhubarb, wild mint, Scots pine, garlic and almost anything growing in the woods around her home on the southern shore of Loch Tay; a man who runs a “green” distillery in the picturesque town of Pitlochry; and an herbalist who dispenses natural products at Napier’s, Edinburgh’s oldest pharmacy. (Who knew that passion flower capsules are a remedy for restless leg syndrome?)
Anyone who has ever been to Scotland can attest to its outstanding natural beauty: rugged mountains and deep glens, shimmering lochs and firths, heather-blanketed hillsides in the spring and summer, forests ablaze with color in the fall, and snow-capped peaks in the winter. From the Lowlands to the Highlands, spectacular vistas unfold.
That scenery is a source of pride for the British – the royal family keeps rushing off to Balmoral in northeast Scotland – and a source of endless fascination for the visitor. Amid the dramatic landscape of the Valley of Glencoe, I learned about the massacre of the ill-fated MacDonald clan. After lunch one day at the Victorian-era Fortingall Hotel, I wandered into the adjoining village cemetery and saw a yew tree that has stood for several thousand years, and under which, it is alleged, Pontius Pilate was born.
On a tour of Blair Atholl Castle – its gleaming white turrets rising against a backdrop of hills – I learned about the 19th century Duke of Atholl, who, at one time, boasted Britain’s only private army. The duke dispatched his army just once, in an effort to turn back a botanical expedition led by a certain Professor Balfour. He was unsuccessful, and the professor won the right to walk the area around the scenic Falls of Bruar in search of rare botanical specimens. In Fort Augustus, alongside Loch Ness, I didn’t spot its monster, “Nessie,” only three kayakers gently gliding through the loch’s glassy water.
Scotland isn’t the first place one thinks of for four-wheel-drive safaris to view animals in their natural habitats, but Highland Adventure Safaris offers that opportunity. Amid the majestic scenery of Highland Perthshire – called Europe’s last wilderness – we boarded our Land Rovers and headed off in search of the Caledonian “big five”: grouse, mountain hare, red deer, golden eagle and red squirrel.
Colin and Andy, our kilted safari leaders, set up a high-powered telescope, allowing us a perfect view of three noble stags atop a rocky ledge. Afterward, they organized a Scotch tasting in a secluded mountainside cabin. You’d think that after a “wee dram” or two, I wouldn’t have any trouble seeing things, but I have to confess I was the only one in our party who failed to spy the elusive snowy owl and the pine marten.
No trip to Scotland is complete without a distillery tour of its most famous product. The names roll off the tongue: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Strathisla, Dalwhinnie, Talisker.
Edradour is probably not a name most Americans are familiar with, as barely 12 casks a week are produced by three men using the same recipe as their predecessors 150 years ago.
The distillery, nestled in a glen of the hills above Pitlochry in the Southern Highlands, can claim a number of distinctions: the smallest distillery in Scotland, both in footprint and distribution (it’s the country’s last remaining “farmhouse” distillery and produces as much in a year as the larger distilleries do in a week). The single malt, aged for 10 years after fermentation, is difficult to get in the United States today, but it allegedly did a brisk business during Prohibition.
If you drive the scarily narrow road alongside Loch Voil in Trossachs National Park, you will arrive in Balquhidder Glen, where you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon a 21st century Brigadoon. Unlike that legendary village, though, the Monachyle Mhor Hotel doesn’t appear just one day every 100 years. Owned and operated by brothers Tom and Dick Lewis and their sister Melanie, it is just one facet of a family business that emphasizes sustainability and farm-to-table produce.
“Our aim is to provide the finest Scottish food and hospitality, whilst taking care of our spectacular surroundings,” Tom Lewis said.
As a host, Tom welcomes the likes of Prince William (whose best mate from university lives in the area) and actor Gerard Butler, who likes to bring his mother here. As a businessman, Lewis welcomes visitors to the area to drop by Mhorbread (a bakery, tearoom and shop) and Mhorfish (a combination fishmongers, restaurant and setting for his cookery classes) in the nearby village of Callander. And as a raconteur, he knows no equal. The man can tell a story. In this instance, the theme is that a country can be both glam and green.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Mains of Taymouth Cottages, Perthshire: Once the home farm for Taymouth Castle, this 120-acre estate on Loch Tay is now a collection of luxury self-catering cottages. The cottages are beautifully decorated, and the Courtyard Bar and Restaurant serves delicious, back-to-basics Scottish cuisine. Taymouth.co.uk.
Lovat Arms, Fort Augustus: This Victorian-era hotel, a five-minute walk from Loch Ness, is at the forefront of sustainability, with many innovative energy-saving features. It also has a delightful staff, an excellent restaurant and a lively bar. Lovatarms-hotel.com.
Monachyle Mhor, near Callander: On the shores of Loch Voil, this 18th century farmhouse has been converted into a 14-room luxury hotel. Mhor.net.
In Edinburgh, two excellent lodging choices are Apex Waterloo Place (Apexhotels.co.uk) for its unbeatable location on Princes Street and a short walk from the Royal Mile, and the Bonham (Thebonham.com), a renovated Victorian townhouse on a quiet residential square.
WHERE TO EAT
In Edinburgh, Iglu (Theiglu.com) and Urban Angel (Urban-angel.co.uk) are at the forefront of ethical sourcing and using local organic produce to ensure the highest quality. Although not a restaurant, Ardross Farm Shop in Elie (Ardrossfarm.co.uk) offers a stunning array of fresh produce, homemade packaged food and locally sourced products.
If you are looking for a private guide, contact Johanna Campbell (Johannacampbell.co.uk), who along with her husband, Gilbert Summers, combines a love for Scottish history and lore with knowledge of all things glam and green. Highland Safaris ( Highlandsafaris.net) offers several ways to see Scotland’s wildlife: walking safaris, cycling safaris or the traditional Land Rover safaris.
Cometoscotland.com or Visitbritain.com. For a look at Scotland’s green tourism initiative, go to Green-business.co.uk.