Highland cattle, known to locals as “heeland coo,” are a common sighting on the eight-day Scottish Dream tour with CIE Tours International. // © 2015 Skye Mayring
Feature image (above): Balmoral Castle, formerly the home of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert // © 2015 Skye Mayring
It’s not every day that you get to meet a duke, but on my eight-day Scottish Dream tour with CIE Tours International, I had an opportunity to rub elbows with the influential and powerful. Upon arriving at Inveraray Castle on the West Coast of Scotland, a tall man with hazel eyes cheerfully greeted our group at the front door.
“Welcome to Inveraray Castle, the seat of Clan Campbell,” the Duke of Argyll said. “I invite you to explore my family home, in which I have had the great privilege of growing up, just as my three children are now.”
The duke gave us a brief overview of the castle, which has been standing on the shores of Loch Fyne since the 1400s and invited us to look around, enjoy the manicured castle grounds and meet him later in the gift shop, if we wished for autographs or to ask additional questions.
Inveraray, a “Downton Abbey” filming location, was one of several in-depth castle experiences on my tour of Scotland with CIE. Equally as memorable was exploring the clifftop fortress of Edinburgh Castle, one of the most visually arresting sights I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The city of Edinburgh — including both the medieval townhouses of Old Town and the elegant mansions of the 200-year-old New Town — is absolutely stunning and worthy of a few extra days. Travel planners should encourage clients to stay at least two additional nights here at the end of the itinerary because there is so much more to see and do in the capital city — from the National Galleries of Scotland to the approximately 1,000-year-old St Giles' Cathedral.
Those who were not already fans of “Outlander,” vowed to start watching the show on Starz as soon as they returned home. The first season of the British-American drama series was shot throughout the Scottish Highlands, including at one of the more popular stops on tour, the Clava Cairns standing stones near Inverness. The Neolithic burial site is said to be the inspiration for the fictional Craigh na Dun, the standing stones that mysteriously transport the lead character back in time. Other filming locations featured on the tour include the Culloden Battleground, the city of Glasgow and Edinburgh Castle.
Although we briefly drove past Loch Ness, Nessie did not rear her head. We instead spent more time on other excursions such as a cruise on Loch Lomond, a walk around the Isle of Skye and an afternoon at leisure, taking in the sights and sounds of St. Andrews.
Duffers were in heaven — St. Andrews is known as the “Home of Golf,” and the Old Course at St Andrews is one of the oldest golf courses in the world. The British Golf Museum, located next to the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, tells the story of the beloved sport from the Middle Ages to today. Not included in the CIE package, museum admission is approximately $11 per person.
The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral were a highlight for me. Once the largest church in Scotland, what remains is a skeleton of the cathedral and an eerie graveyard juxtaposed with bright green grass. There is no fee to walk around the site and take what will be some truly fabulous photographs.
Many guests on our tour were enthralled by St. Andrew’s links to the British Royal Family. Prince William and Kate Middleton famously met here while in college, and our tour guide pointed out the cafe where their first meeting reportedly took place.
CIE aims to provide guests with a more inclusive experience in Scotland. With that in mind, the tour operator offers a 550+ Advantage program, promising a sales- and gimmick-free trip. In other words, clients will not be upsold throughout the trip. Experiences such as a sheepdog demonstration at Leault Farm, a whisky tasting at Blair Athol Distillery, admission fees for attractions listed on the itinerary, Wi-Fi connectivity onboard the coach, daily breakfast and six dinners (including the Scottish Evening multimedia dinner show in Edinburg) are included in the cost of the tour.
“With our 550+ Advantage program, there are no optional extras to worry about and many of our venues are exclusive to us,” said Carol Doherty, vice president of sales for CIE. “We are the real thing, and we do our area of the world [Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales] better than anyone else.”