01 January 2019
We drive the North East 250, Scotland’s newest 250 mile tourist route. Go and do it now before everyone else decides to...
People are like sheep. They follow each other, tourists especially. If you chat to a holiday maker at Edinburgh airport or train station most of them will probably be heading to Loch Ness or Isle of Skye. I once swam in Loch Ness in the middle of winter. It was after a distillery tour, of course. And yes, I have also been to the Isle of Skye, several times, but since owning a Land Rover I have changed the way I travel. In fact, I have become a bit of a lone wolf. I like open spaces and the feeling that I am the only person on the planet.
Two years ago we featured the then-new Scottish North Coast 500 route. I will unashamedly say that it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful roads on the planet. Today, tens of thousands of people do it each year. So if driving it during the summer holidays, it’s sadly become a little like London’s Oxford Street.
In my constant search for the next big thing I decided to go and do the just-launched North East 250 route, before it hits travel mag headlines. Do you know how I knew it was going to be a good one? I could not find out much information online or even articles about the route except for the fact that it was open for business.
Our Disco passes under the impressive old bridge at Cullen
To do the NE250 route one can fly into Aberdeen and rent a Land Rover or else just drive yourself up to the north-eastern part of Scotland! I flew into Inverness as this is where my photographer Craig Dutton is from. Craig picked me up in his P38A and then we headed for the nearby shores of Loch Ness, which is where WildTrax Scotland are located. As we pulled into their driveway James Munday was just putting down the rooftop tent of the Discovery 4 that we would be renting from them for the NE250 route. It had everything we would need for a wild camping trip, even sleeping bags and pillows. They also hire out Defenders but did not have any available for our 48-hour rental. Ah well, we would certainly be more comfortable in a Discovery 4.
Speeding along by the River Spey
After leaving WildTrax it takes us about two hours to get onto the official NE250 route, which we join at Ballindalloch. The River Spey lies just to the north of us and the initial plan is to follow it to the coast; the NE250 is basically a coastal circumnavigation of this north-eastern corner of Scotland. Then, when you get to Aberdeen, head east towards the Highlands and charms of the Cairngorms National Park. Nothing excites me more than exploring new parts of our planet. My heart must have been beating at about 200 beats per second as our Discovery sped along the Spey towards the north coast. One of the most touristy things to do in Scotland is a distillery tour and we now found ourselves in the heart of Scottish single malt country. Every bend in the road brings another world-famous distillery. Aberlour, Chivas and Glenfiddich all fly by. We are on a tight schedule and can’t stop or else we would only complete the first five miles of our 250 mile route in the 48 hours that we have. I would suggest taking at least a week to do it!
Find time to visit a distillery or cooperage
One place worth stopping at is the Speyside Cooperage. It’s the only working cooperage in the UK where you can actually witness the ancient art of cask making. You can’t miss the place as there are literally thousands of casks piled up outside the visitor centre. The Speyside Cooperage fixes and produces 150,000 casks for the Speyside whisky distilleries so it’s a rather busy place.
The River Spey flows into the Moray Firth coast at Spey Bay and we allow ourselves a leg stretch here. The Scottish Dolphin Centre is right next to the car park and their display on the Moray Firth dolphins is informative. Craig and I decide to take a walk. The sun is out and the place is bustling with lots of people. The river widens at the mouth and the low winter light reflects brightly off the lagoon. It feels good to be here.
Portknockie’s famous Bow Fiddle Rock
Our Discovery 4 stylishly takes us east along the coastal road. We allow ourselves a stop at the historic town of Buckie. It was once a quaint fishing village but today nearly 10,000 people call this home. We head straight for the town’s biggest attraction, Cluny Harbour. The place is alive with fishing boats of every shape and size. It’s a great place to sit and watch the world go by. Watching the fishing boats has made me hungry and so we stop at Portknockie’s famous fish and chip shop. How did we know it was famous? There was a long queue outside the door. Don’t leave Portknockie without visiting its famous Bow Fiddle Rock. To me it looks like the Titanic when it went down and only a small bit was still sticking out of the water. The rock has a gash in it and the water flows through it, giving it an attractive look.
While our guide book tells us that the nearby Cullen Beach is a popular one, we instead head to Sandend. I like the caravan park as it looks out over the bay. I make a note of the place in my notebook as I would like to come back to this long, sandy beach one day.
A wire dolphin stands guard over the 17th century Portsoy Harbour
Old harbourside inn at Portsoy that’s been pulling pints for 300 years
If you ever want to feel what life was like in 17th century Scotland then visit the Portsoy Harbour, our next stop. It has featured in many a BBC period drama and film. The harbour alone is worth driving the NE250 route. We are running out of sunlight and still have a few kms to our overnight stop at Gardenstown so I tell Craig to put away his camera. We do the last few miles in the dark but the lights on the D4 are better than those on my Defender and we have no problems. I first visited Gardenstown about a year ago when doing a story on the Defender which belongs to the Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit, who are based here. Although they stop their dolphin and whale research over the winter period we are still able to stay at their HQ and enjoy a few glasses of wine and a tasty roast chicken with them all.
Patrick enjoys a good climb to the top of Stevenson’s spiral staircase
Scotland’s first lighthouse, at Kinnaird Head
From Gardenstown we head to Fraserburgh, known by locals as the Broch. It’s home to Europe’s largest shellfish port but instead we head to the Scottish Lighthouse Museum. Michael Strachan, the museum’s collections manager and tour guide, takes us on a private tour of the museum and the fascinating Kinnaird Head Lighthouse. Michael has authored several books on Scottish lighthouses. If you ever need someone to answer a question on Scottish lighthouses to win a million quid he is the friend you need to phone. His passion for the subject is infectious. We spend an hour in his company. Kinnaird Head is the only lighthouse in the world that was built on an existing structure, which just so happens to be a castle. It was Scotland’s first lighthouse. We leave the museum with heads full of facts.
Disco looks at home in this picturesque harbour setting
We start to head south along the eastern coast of the route. Peterhead, too, has an impressive harbour. It’s one of the busiest fishing ports in all of Europe and 400 fishing vessels call it home. We stop at one of the many fish shops and buy some smoked salmon for lunch. If you like your seafood then this is definitely the place to be.
As we head further south the layout of the land seems to change. There seems to be more formal farming alongside the road. Our next stop, the Bullers of Buchan, is only six miles away. It’s a dramatic collapsed sea cave where the water gushes through an arch. The cliffs are a natural protective paradise and if you come at the right time of the year expect to see puffins, kittiwakes, shags and razorbills. People have fallen to their deaths from these unfenced cliffs so do take care if visiting them. Some tourists with young kids were doing some very stupid things when we were there.
The Northeast route has plenty of this
It seems as if we have just climbed into the Discovery when we arrive at our next stop, Slains Castle at Cruden Bay. This is one of the most famous castles in all of Scotland as it served as the inspiration for the setting of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Today the castle is a ruin and this might be due to the fact that one of the previous owners removed the roof to avoid paying taxes.
I pop the Discovery into low range and drive down an embankment so that I can park on a dramatic outcrop. It’s about as good as the off-roading gets on this tarmac trail.
The water used to make your Glenlivet single malt probably flowed under this very bridge, known as the Bridge of Livet
Aberdeen might be the gateway to the black gold of the North Sea but I don’t do cities and we instead head east towards the interior and the Cairngorm Mountains. The coastal part of our NE250 adventure is over. Our final night on the route is spent at the Lodge on the Loch in Aboyne. It provides us with the perfect pre-sunrise springboard into the valley of the Royal Dee. Some call it the Royal Deeside as this is where the Royal family come to stay when visiting Scotland. From Aboyne we make our way to Ballater but not before stopping at the Muir of Dinnet to take a walk and visit the Vat Gorge, where 10,000 years ago glacial water flowed. Today it is an impressive crack in the rocky landscape that one can walk through and admire. There are lots of little waterfalls flowing into it. Definitely worth the stop and walk.
Our D4 eats up the Highland landscape
Our Disco 4 has to work a little harder now that it is in the hills but it takes no prisoners as it eats up the Highland landscapes. The bright autumnal colours have turned the woods, wetlands and moors into a colourful canvas. The River Dee is famous the world over for its salmon fishing and we meet local author and fly fishing guide Ian Murray for breakfast in Ballater. With him is Rob Pringle, a man who has looked after the Queen’s Land Rovers for over half a century. So if you’re ever travelling through the area and have a Land Rover problem or just fancy a chat about Land Rovers then do stop off at Victoria Garage. Today Rob owns a collection of classic cars including an 86-inch Series I that used to belong to King George VI. Rob’s Dad purchased it from the Royal family many years ago for £50; today it’s worth a little more than that, as Land Rover lovingly restored it in 2010.
The River Dee - top river for salmon fishing
After breakfast Ian gives us a master class on the River Dee. “I don’t guarantee my clients that they will catch a salmon but what I do promise them is that they will learn a skill,” explains Ian who owns a couple of Land Rovers himself. We’re fast running out of time and hit the road again.
We pass the Lecht Ski Resort. It’s the end of October and the slopes are green and rocky. The first winter snowfalls are predicted to fall just after our visit. Soon we are back where we started at Ballindalloch. We have taken 48 hours to do the route. It’s nowhere near enough. Only time will tell if this route will get as busy as the North Coast 500, I kind of hope it doesn’t. It has salmon smokehouses, whisky distilleries, lighthouses, coastal cliffs, quality accommodation, beautiful beaches, fishing-friendly rivers, scenic roads and many other attractions to make it a great route, and long may that continue without the crowds. So my advice to you is to go now before the masses find out and the sheep move in.
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