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Fell in love with the Scottish Highlands & Skye

My husband and I spent a week in Scotland (2 nights in Edinburgh, then 5 days in the Highlands & Isle of Skye), and then two weeks in Greece in September 2019. I received so much great advice from this forum that I wanted to come back and share my trip details!

For our past trips I planned everything myself in great detail and I love the planning. So far we've been to Venice, Rome, around Tuscany, San Sebastian, Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Paris, and Amsterdam so this was our first time to Scotland and Greece. But for this trip, in order to do the Highlands/Skye justice and avoid driving I took a chance on booking a 5 day Highlands tour with Rabbies and it ended up being the absolute highlight of our trip! I didn't ever think that we would enjoy a group tour (we'd never done one before) but we loved it so much that we're thinking about taking another Rabbies tour (or two) to the UK in April of this year for a 7-10 day trip (asking advice for this below! thinking maybe the 5 day Discover Wales tour, a few nights in London, and would love to convince my husband to do another Rabbies 2/3 day tour to somewhere else in England. Suggestions??)

Our favorite part of this trip was the dramatic views in the Highlands and Skye. For that reason I am SO happy that we didn't rent a car and got to enjoy it stress free. If we had rented a car, we wouldn't have been able to both enjoy the view out the window, known where to stop, the best places for photos, or had someone there to take photos with both of us in it. Not to mention driving on the left side of the road, traversing the many one lane roads, time and frustration spent getting lost, etc. I'm confident that we wouldn't have had nearly as good of a trip if we hadn't done the tour and had instead opted to do it ourselves! We rented a car in Italy and Greece and it was fine, but Scotland would have been totally different. Plus, it was so nice to get to hear about the history of and stories about Scotland as we drove. I also loved being able to get downtime just to relax and read a good book as we drove as I don't get to enough at home.

Our tour guide, Jim (he was the BEST! so funny and knowledgable) would pick us up at 9:15 each day and drop us off around 5 and would give several recommendations for restaurant options wherever we stopped. The van held 16 passengers and was very comfortable. I think the tour size was great, not too big, but big enough that we got to meet people from different countries and kept conversation flowing. Jim made some changes from the tour itinerary on the website based on our feedback of what we wanted to see which we really appreciated. There were also some road closures which made us unable to see Bealach na Ba road or Applecross, or Torridon which was really disappointing.

A downside to doing a tour is that we of course didn't like every stop and most of the lunch restaurants were just okay since we stopped in little towns with few options and couldn't look up reviews on places to eat. Though we really did love most of the stops on the tour and the scenery as we drove! Another downside is that I don't really know/remember the names of everywhere we went and didn't think to write it down. We went to many more places than what I listed below. The tour never felt long or tiring, and had just enough stops to break up the driving. But Scotland is all about scenery so we loved seeing it as we drove and it gave us a break from the wind, (sometimes) rain, and cold.

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Edinburgh
We flew in to Edinburgh from JFK and got in around 8:30/9 am and took a taxi to our hotel, The Inn Place on Cockburn St for the first of two days in Edinburgh. Loved Cockburn Street and I think I read it was one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter? We stopped to drop our bags and get coffee at the coffee shop below, then immediately walked the two minutes to the Royal Mile for the Sandeman Free walking tour from 10-12:30. We do a free (tip-based) walking tour in nearly every city we're in and this tour was one that we didn't really enjoy... I'm not sure if it was just the guide but we had trouble staying interested. We did stop at Victoria Street to see the colorful houses and the Statue of Greyfriars Bobby on the tour.

Next we walked to a french restaurant, Cafe St. Honore for lunch since we really don't have many french restaurants back home and we loved Paris. I wouldn't say we would recommend this restaurant, it was just ok, though it could have been we just didn't like the menu offerings that day. Next we walked along the Royal Mile, stopping in St. Giles Cathedral along the way, to Palace of Holyroodhouse. I think our lack of sleep on the flight caught up with us because we were bored to tears on this audio tour. I think also we were underwhelmed with this palace because we've seen so many elaborate palaces in other countries and this one pales in comparison! We had thought we would stop at the Queen's Gallery to see the Romanovs exhibit but we didn't have enough time before they closed and just as well, I'm not sure how much we would enjoy it because we were exhausted. We went back to the hotel for about two hours to take a quick nap before dinner. For dinner we went to Whiski Rooms and tried a bunch of different items: cullen skink (not for us!), haggi spring rolls (okay), steak pie (good), venison (good), and sticky toffee pudding (good). I hate to say it but, we learned on this trip that we're not big fans of Scottish food and got bored of it quickly. I wish we had eaten more Indian like we did the last night in EDI because it was fantastic. We went back to the hotel to go to bed. The Inn Place had the absolute worst, rock hard mattress of our whole trip but the best shower. It's in a great location right off the Royal Mile, but we wouldn't recommend it because the bed was terrible! (They also don't have breakfast included, which we don't mind but others might.)

For our second day in Edinburgh, we stopped to get coffee at the cafe below the hotel then walked the two minutes to the Royal Mile to meet our tour group for the Edinburgh castle walking tour with Sandeman. Again, we were somewhat underwhelmed with this tour but a large part of that had to do with it being so windy and cold at the castle that we couldn't wait for it to end! We didn't think about how much windier it would be at the castle. For lunch after the tour we went to Makars Mash Bar and opted to try haggis and black pudding since we hadn't really yet. The mashed potatoes were good but we were sadly not a fan of haggis and black pudding. I do love, though, how inexpensive wine and beer is in Europe so it was nice to sit for a bit with some wine. After, we wandered around the Royal Mile, bought some tablet which was delicious, and then went back to the hotel for a bit to relax. For dinner, I had made a reservation at Tastiel before our trip but when we got there we found them closed! Disappointed, we went to an Italian place along the Royal Mile that had great reviews but really wasn't all that good (though we could just be biased because we've been to Italy). We went to grab a few drinks at a bar (I think Devil's Advocate was the name), then had a 10 pm ghost tour booked with City of the Dead. This tour was pretty good, we enjoyed it but it wasn't a must do that I would recommend to everyone. It took us underground and into a graveyard that can only be accessed with a tour company.

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The next day, we checked out and met our Rabbies tour at the bus station. Then the last day of the Rabbies Tour, we were dropped back in Edinburgh at 6. We were leaving that night for a red eye flight to Santorini at 11, so we had a few hours left in Edinburgh before our flight. We had booked the Real Mary King Close tour the day before so we spent an hour doing that and found it pretty interesting and would recommend doing it. Then we had dinner at the Indian restaurant on Cockburn St and it was very good! I wish we had eaten at more Indian restaurants while in Edinburgh because it was our favorite meal. We got to the airport about an hour before our flight and that was plenty of time as EDI is a pretty laidback airport, or at least was at that time of night.

Overall, Edinburgh was charming but we didn't fall in love with it in the way that others do. I felt two nights/2.5 days here was plenty and I wouldn't feel the need to return unless we went back to the Highlands or elsewhere in Scotland and were flying in/out of EDI. Luckily it didn't rain the two days we were there but it was very cold and windy, especially at Edinburgh Castle. In case its helpful, these are some other sights that were on our list but we didn't end up doing either because we didn't have enough time or weren't sure how much we would enjoy it: Princes Street Gardens, Camera Obscura, Georgian House, Dean Village, National Museum of Scotland, Camera obscura, have a tea lunch somewhere, The people’s story, Monkey Barrel Comedy Show.
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Our next portion of our Scotland trip, the Highlands and Isle of Skye, is what made us fall in love with Scotland! We were lucky and it only rained all day one of the days we were there. The rest of the time it was mostly sunny, although the weather does change often from sunshine, drizzling, or rain and our tour guide was either excellent at planning stops when it wasn't raining heavily or we just got lucky. The only time I remember the rain bothering us was when it came time to stop at Eileen Donan - we could only see it from a distance and it was pouring rain with lots of fog so we didn't really get a good look. The rain definitely did not affect the stunning scenery!

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Rabbies Tour Day 1
We stopped in the village of Dunkeld. Honestly, if we hadn't been on the tour we wouldn't have stopped here - there's really not much to see IMO.
Stopped at Loch Ness - this was BEAUTIFUL and we had a sunny day for it
Drove through the Cairngorms National Park, the ancient pine forests of the Rothiemurchus estate, the mountains of Assynt - beautiful again
Then we spent two nights at Ullapool
We loved Ullapool, but two nights here was plenty and we were ready to leave after that. We only spent the evenings here as the rest of the day we were on the tour. There's truly not much to do, but the view of the water, boats, pebble beach, and very small town is gorgeous and we got great photos! There's a campground there and it's a very popular place to stay it seems.
We stayed at Harbour House and I can't recommend this enough if you're staying in Ullapool. We received a very warm welcome with a drink (sherry maybe?) and shortbread on arrival and the bed was extremely comfortable. It had made to order breakfasts and lots of options. Though, I have to say we're not much of a fan of the traditional Scottish breakfast, there were many other options. The coffee was great. Our favorite part of this hotel, though, was that you could walk out the back door to the lawn and were right on the harbor and could walk down to the beach and see the boats. We got phenomenal photos. Then you could walk along the white pebble beach to get to town ( less than 10 minute walk) for the restaurants (though you'll have to climb some big rocks to do this - we're both in our late 20's so this wasn't an issue for us). The only downside was the wifi wasn't working for one of the days we stayed.
The first night we stopped at the Arch Inn to make a dinner reservation, then went to the Ferry Boat Inn for a few glasses of wine/beer while we waited. The food at The Arch Inn was fantastic and seafood very fresh! We ordered the oysters and the special that night, some type of white fish with a cream sauce and the fish and chips. All were excellent.
Day 2:
On this day we visited the crumbling ruins of Ardvreck Castle and got some great photos
Then we went on to the pretty white beach of Achmelvich Bay - highly recommend!
According to the Rabbies website, we also visited the fishing village of Lochinver but I don't really remember the village so maybe I don't recommend it!
The second night we ate at the Seafood Shack. This place gets excellent reviews for having very fresh seafood. They have a limited menu and close early - I think by 5 or 6. It's a stand so there's no restaurant to eat inside at but there are tables/chairs outside. They were out of most of the options that we had wanted to try so the menu was even more limited, but we both ordered the haddock wrap and it was HUGE and good. We brought it down to the picnic tables by the harbor to eat. If you go here, try to go for lunch before they sell out of items!

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Day 3:
I'm honestly not sure what the names were of the places we went this day but I can tell you, the views were as dramatic and gorgeous as ever
We drove through Plockton (but didn't stop) because I had mentioned to Jim that I wanted to see it, but it wasn't nearly as nice as we thought it would be and maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think it's worth a stop. We did stop at the outdoor church on the way into Plockton.
We went to the Corrieshalloch Gorge and this wouldn't be a place I would stop if I weren't on the tour
We stayed at Breton House in Portree for the next two nights. We had the room with two beds in it. The bathroom was nice with a good shower and the cooked to order breakfast was okay (expected more since the owners own two restaurants in town!). The downside of this place was the awful sheets (scratchy and pilled) and pillows (very thin and lumpy). Both seemed very dated and I'm surprised they haven't replaced them with new ones. It was close enough where you could walk to/from dinner, but if it's raining they do have a taxi service you can call for 7-10 E to get to town. Overall, wouldn't recommend this place as there's probably better options.
We made reservations before we left for our trip at The Rosedale Hotel in Portree for dinner. We were able to sit by the window and had a view of the sunset over the harbor during dinner. Dinner was on the pricier side and we had a bunch of tapas to try and it was good. There very well could be better options than this restaurant, though!
Day 4:
We stopped at Old Man of Storr and Kilt Rock
We stopped for a tasting at Talisker Distillery - neither of us enjoy whiskey so we didn't really enjoy this experience and were pretty bored. Then we stopped at Isle of Skye Brewery and got to try a bunch of different beers. This is more of a convenient store setting so it's not really a fun brewery experience.
My favorite stop of the whole Scotland trip was Quiraing (Cuith-Raing). It was stunning and other worldly! They've filmed several movies here, I think Star Wars was one of them. Very, very, very windy and muddy so dress appropriately for that.
We had dinner in Portree at Cuchullin - this was just okay. We were hoping for the seafood platter but they were sold out that day. I got the fish & chips and it wasn't great. I think my husband had steak.
Day 5:
Continuing east through the rugged mountains of Kintail, we drive down through Glen Garry past Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and onto Fort William for lunch. All great sights!
We saw the "Harry Potter express", "Harry Potter viaduct" and a beautiful church all on our way back to Edinburgh and got back to Edinburgh by 6

I miss Scotland! I fell in love with the Highlands/Skye and would happily return.

We just decided to plan a spontaneous trip back to the UK in early April for another Rabbies tour (or two) and would love suggestions on where to go for 7-10 days since I haven't done any research yet on England and only a bit on Wales so far. Would the scenery in Wales be similar to Scotland? Which areas of England would you recommend looking into? I'm looking at these Rabbies England tours https://www.rabbies.com/en/england-tours in addition to the 5 day Discover Wales tour.

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679 posts

We loved Skye and the highlands as well. We were there last May and found it so beautiful. Gland you enjoyed your time. We saw a lot of Rabbie's tour buses while we were there. I am glad it was a good tour.

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7109 posts

I think the wind and cold and jet-lag really affected your enjoyment of Edinburgh. If the weather had been pleasant, i think your experience might have been much better. I hope you give it a second chance. Edinburgh castle blew me away (and i grew up in France), the castle itself plus the amazing history that took place there was very impactful. Thank you for the Rabbies Tour rec, good to know!

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3769 posts

Glad to read your review - we are hitting Scotland for the first time in May and I am just about to book the Rabbies 3 day Isle of Skye and already booked the 4 day Castles tour. We are flying in to Glasgow and will have a day and a half, then the evening after the Rabbies. Will have 2 1/2 days in Edin then the evening after the Castle tour.

I had such a hard time deciding which Rabbies tours! I watched the Rick Steves videos of Scotland and decided of Mull/Iona and Skye - Skye appealed more to me. I know we aren't getting a lot of the Highlands, but I imagine we will return in the future.

I'll have to make sure I have my ipad handy to make notes about where we stop!

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433 posts

KBM, thanks for the informative post and all the opinions. Great trip prep reading for anyone heading to Scotland. I went with the RS group last May, or was it April. Had a wonderful time and got a tan.

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Last summer my husband and I took the Rabbies tour of Mull, Iona and Skye and another onward to Orkney. This tour included the Highlands and some stunning beaches on the northern coast. We loved it. We were one of two American families on each tour. Other tour members hailed from France, Switzerland, Australia and Canada. We also loved the tours, and our two guides, Jaimie and Seana, were wonderful. I chose Rabbles over Rick Steves because of the itinerary. Having traveled with RS to England and Ireland, I also felt I could forego another sheepdog demonstration, though did enjoy them. We learned so much about Scottish history. The scenery was breathtaking. I enjoyed Edinburgh, but if/when I return I will focus on the countryside. My husband is an amateur scotch/whiskey connoisseur, so we hired a private guide, Alister McDermott, to take us to the Balvenie distillery. Alister is a wonderful, knowledgeable guide who greets you decked out in his clan tartan. Balvenie is touted as one of the best distillery tours, and it was grand. You have to make a reservation and they only do small group tours. I don't appreciate scotch, so turned down a drop of the $1000 bottle at the tasting. Must say those who do imbibe received generous samples of several bottles. We stayed in Plockton overnight and found it peaceful and charming. Several very good local restaurants. From my perspective, one of the main differences between Rabbles and RS is that while our driver/guides provided volumes of insight, stories and history, you get much more on site guiding from RS. However, that did not diminish our experience. Perhaps it would if we didn't speak the language. Agreed that the City of the Dead tour is entertaining, but not a must do. We stayed at the Royal Scots Club in Edinburgh, and it enhanced our visit to the city. Located in New Town, and a hike from Old Town, it was founded in 1919 as a tribute to the fallen in WWI. Still a military club as well as small hotel, there is historic military memorabilia throughout. The room was large, attractive and comfortable. A very intimate, historic, but not intimidating alternative to more typical hotels. I fell in love with Scotland and hope to return soon.

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travelk
Your trip sounds pretty familiar. We visited Scotland after we finished our Rick Steves 14 day tour of Ireland. We spent 2 days in Edinburgh before taking a "Heart of Scotland" bus tour. It was also called the Wee Red Bus company. They have a very similar itinerary to Rabbies. It went to a few places that we wanted to visit that Rabbies didn't go. We took a 5 day tour that took us through the Highlands, Culloden and we stayed at Inverness. Then we went to the Isle of Skye. It is such a gorgeous place. Unfortunately we dodged showers off and on for a day and a half. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was for our evening meals. My husband's family was from the Murray clan which was in the Highlands. It was special for him. I wrote a trip report in October or November if you want to read it. Enjoy your trip to London. There is so much to do there. We have visited 3 times and still find new things to see.