Sometimes Mother Nature surprises you. She displays herself in shapes and forms you didn’t think possible on this planet. Such was the case on the remote Isle of Skye, in the far highlands of Scotland where my wife and I discovered natural beauty in ways we never knew existed.
Our hiking excursion in this less-visited region of Scotland delighted us to the point of “stealing the show” as the final leg of our European excursion. We had toured the highlights of Ireland for a week, then jumped the pond to Scotland to see The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, then drove a half-day to reach this unusual expanse, and immediately realized the splendor of the Scottish highlands is truly unparalleled.
The base camp for our hiking adventure, Letterfinlay Lodge Hotel, turned out to be a hidden gem itself. It’s perched precariously on the banks of Loch Lochy, in the heart of the “outdoor capital of the U.K.” In fact, the tallest mountain on the British Isles, Ben Nevis, is just 12 miles from Letterfinlay, which opened as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1957.
Ian Smith bought the property five years ago and succeeded at upgrading the accommodations without losing any of the lodge’s original charm. In fact, while the magnificent view from the deck (pictured below) is my favorite physical feature of the lodge, its faint, old-school lodge smell is a close second.
“I love the feel of this place,” I said to my wife one evening as we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink on Letterfinlay’s panoramic Osprey sun deck. It was one of those vague statements you make when you’re charmed by the spirit of a quaint lodge but can’t quite find the words to express what you’re getting at.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Jodie responded immediately. “If we lived here [in Scotland], I could see us coming to this place every year for vacation.”
In fact, Letterfinlay does hold the distinction of being the secret little place where “the locals” go on their vacations.
“The hotel has an amazing setting on the banks of Loch Lochy surrounded by some of our country's stunning mountains,” said Claire, of Falkirk, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “We ate in the hotel both nights and the food was perfect and the staff service was superb. This is a small hotel with a big heart. We really cannot recommend this gem highly enough and we look forward to getting the chance to go back!”
Letterfinlay features 14 rooms, a dining room and bar, and a comfortable lounge complete with a dart board and billiards table. A friendly atmosphere permeates all parts of the lodge (they even welcome dogs in select rooms) and we enjoyed walking the halls and gazing at trophy fish photos and mounted stags adorning the walls.
The staff is fantastic. Lindsey was our favorite, a local lassie in her young 20s who was full of energy and offered us practical tips on everything from what to order for breakfast (we liked how she called French toast “eggy bread”) and where to explore.
The staff also accommodates weddings, offering guests the chance to rent out the entire lodge and have a private party.
“Every couple wants their wedding to be perfect and ours was just that,” said Sam, of Edinburgh, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “Letterfinlay, with its charm and character, was the ideal place for our wedding ceremony and photos. It was a delight to work with such a professional and courteous staff who was able to ensure that every detail was taken care of.”
The detail that drove us to stay at Letterfinlay is its unbeatable location. It’s a four hour drive from the nation’s famous capital city, Edinburgh, where the majority of tourists stay for their entire time in Scotland. From Letterfinlay, you’re then just two hours away from the mystical Isle of Skye.
Until recently the unspoiled island was only accessible by boat, but the construction of the Skye Bridge offers a lovely drive that will doubtlessly take you longer than MapQuest suggests, due to the frequent photo opportunities (such as the one pictured below) that demand you pull over.
We left Letterfinlay at 5:30 the morning of our Skye expedition and headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.
Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.
Photos don’t do this natural treasure justice, but I had to try. At one point the wind nearly blew my tripod and camera over, and I leapt from my pose, several feet away, just in the nick of time to save my Nikon from a premature and rocky death.
As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”
I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.
After conquering The Old Man of Storr, we made our way north to The Quiraing, stopping along the way at Kilt Rock waterfall. The 200-foot-tall sea cliff, so named due to its resemblance to a Scotsman’s tartan kilt, has a layer of volcanic rock with vertical lava columns that look like pleats.
The Quiraing presented us with a new hiking challenge, and while it was less vertically challenging than The Old Man of Storr, its views were equally stunning.
We peered down at the dramatic, jagged northern end of the Trotternish Peninsula and identified each of The Quiraing’s famous rock formations: The Table, The Prison and The Needle.
If I saw the terrain in a movie I’d think for sure it was made up for dramatic effect, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and Mother Nature surprises me in ways I didn’t think possible.
I love it when she does.
How beautiful is Letterfinlay Lodge and its surrounding area? Well, one evening we were driving back to the lodge from nearby Fort William and got a "wee bit" lost. Our GPS took us through some tiny dirt road barely wide enough for one car, nonetheless two-way traffic. Tourists would never drive on this road, intentionally. Sheep were running ahead of us as we passed the driveways and houses of several local farmers. Suddenly we came around a turn and saw this view:
We also enjoyed the drive back to Letterfinlay from the Island of Skye. To reach the island, we took the bridge, but on the return trip we took a different route via a ferry. The next two photos came in the parking lot while we were waiting for the ferry:
Of course, it is the views from The Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing that remain most vividly imprinted in my mind.