EDINBURGH, Scotland - History tells us that Queen Victoria became so enamored of the beauty of Scotland while traveling across the country by train that she decided she must have a castle here. Hence, Balmoral was added to the list of royal residences.
Sadly, I wasn't in the market for a Scottish castle, but I was about to follow in the queen's footsteps by taking a rail journey through the country. Since I would be traveling aboard the elegant Royal Scotsman, it was a good bet that I would enjoy the same standard of service and luxury that Victoria did.
If the boarding process was any indication of what was to come, I'd say even a queen would be impressed. On an overcast October afternoon at Edinburgh's Waverley Station, my fellow guests and I were ushered aboard the train by Sue, our gracious hostess, to the accompaniment of a kilted bagpiper. Once settled in the observation car, we were invited to nibble on smoked salmon canapes and handed a glass of chilled Perrier-Jouët.
"Wow, I could get used to this," I mumbled to myself, twirling my champagne flute.
I also could get used to my compartment, which, while not large, was lavishly furnished with burgundy tapestry drapes, built-in beds with glen plaid coverlets, and black-and-white etchings of Scottish scenes.
During the next four days, I was to discover that the best pieces of art were the Scottish scenes framed by the four corners of my window. The constantly changing vistas - alternately bathed in golden sunshine or shrouded in mountain mist - took in sheep-studded hillocks, bonny braes (that's Gaelic for riverbanks), tranquil lochs, fields blanketed with the last of the summer heather, and the occasional pile of forbidding gray stones fashioned into fortresses meant to repel the oftinvading English.
Along with my fellow sojourners, a cosmopolitan lot, I would be traveling up the eastern coast of Scotland, from Edinburgh to the Highlands and back, while visions of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Sir Walter Scott, and (OK, I admit it) Sean Connery danced in my head.
There are some places that, due to geography, history, literature or a combination of all three, develop a mythology all their own. Scotland is such a place. Geographically, it is a country of shady glens, shimmering lochs and stark hills. Historically, it has given us the tragic saga of Mary, Queen of Scots; the warring Campbell and MacDonald clans; the whitewashed exploits of Rob Roy (my illusions were dashed when I discovered that he was a glorified cattle thief); and the romantic but doomed cause of the Jacobites, personified by Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Scotland also is the backdrop for Shakespeare's most dramatic play, Macbeth, and has showcased the patriotic fervor of Walter Scott's novels and the romance of Robert Burns' poetry.
On the Royal Scotsman's four-night Classic Tour, I got a taste of all the above. But first, I got a taste of something else for which Scotland is pretty famous.
For our first evening's entertainment, we were invited to a traditional Scottish ceilidh, a sort of Gaelic barn dance. Only our festivities weren't in a barn, but at Strathisla, the oldest operating distillery in the Highlands, known to discriminating whiskey drinkers around the globe as the producer of Chivas Regal.
And even though local musicians had arranged to play all the traditional tunes, there was more drinking than dancing by our jolly band of wayfarers. Not surprising when you learn that the region, known as Speyside, has the ideal environment for producing the smooth, rounded malt whiskeys that make up the Chivas blend.
If Scotland is celebrated for its whiskeys, it is equally known for its castles, and two of its most beautiful and historic were on our itinerary. Eilean Donan, on a rocky promontory at the meeting point of three sea lochs, has been called the most photographed castle in the world, and is the perfect embodiment of medieval splendor. Except that it isn't.
A fortified structure of some sort has existed here for 800 years - possibly as protection from Viking raids - but the current castle, rising from the ruins of its predecessor, was rebuilt in the early 20th century by the MacRae clan. Still, a tour of the courtyard, billeting room, and magnificent banqueting hall will have you feeling as if you had stumbled back to the 17th century. And if you stick around until sunset to watch the castle illuminated in soft light, you'll feel there can't be a more magical spot in all of Britain.
A castle of a different sort is Ballindalloch, known as "the pearl of the north" and one of the few privately owned castles to have been lived in continuously by the original family. In the case of Ballindalloch, the family is the Macpherson-Grants, and the current owners, Clare Macpherson-Grant and her husband, Oliver Russell, take Royal Scotsman guests on a private tour of their home.
Located in the cleft of the Spey Valley, the castle, with its turrets and gabled roof, looms over majestic parklands and spectacular gardens. Among the interior features are a circular stone staircase winding up to a watchtower dating to 1602; a series of elegant rooms with decor ranging from antique Chinese porcelain to a cut-glass chandelier whose design of intertwined English roses and Scottish thistle might have been intended to celebrate the 1707 union of the two countries; and a letter from Rob Roy MacGregor, the infamous outlaw, demanding protection money from the then laird (yes, illusions die hard; the next thing I'll find out is that he didn't really look like Liam Neeson).
Scone Palace, while not strictly a castle, is one of the most hallowed spots in Scotland. The traditional coronation site for Scottish kings, it has seen both Macbeth and his enemy Malcolm rule here in the 11th century; Robert the Bruce crowned here in 1306, with the blood of his chief rival still on his hands; and Charles II, the last king to be crowned here, in 1651, in defiance of Oliver Cromwell.
Though no longer home to the Stone of Scone (the English returned it to Scotland in 1996, and it is now in Edinburgh Castle), Scone Palace, ancestral home of the Earls of Mansfield, is a repository of history and a trove of antiques and decorative arts. As Royal Scotsman guests, we roamed the palace and grounds at our leisure and were guided by the irrepressible Alastair.
Other excursions took us to the Dalmore distillery on the banks of the Cromarty Firth, which has distilled Scotch whiskey since 1839, and Rothiemurchus Estate, where options included fly-fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, and a drive around the estate to see the prize-winning Highland cattle.
But it is often not the spectacular sites that Royal Scotsman guests remember the longest, but their fellow passengers. The train's intimacy encourages long conversations in the lounge over a wee dram, and table-hopping during lunch and dinner. In so doing, friendships are forged. On our last night, as we joined hands and voices in the singing of "Loch Lomond" and "Auld Lang Syne," I couldn't help but notice there were more than a few tears among the laughter.
For train travel, the Royal Scotsman is the ultimate experience. The train holds just 36 passengers, which gives you the feeling of being in a traveling house party. You travel during the day, with various stops for included excursions, and the train is stabled each night.
Next year's schedule is from April 27 (sold out) to Oct. 27, and has a number of itineraries. Two-night trips begin at $3,610; three nights at $5,250; and the four-night classic at $6,620. Longer trips (five and seven nights) range from $7,970 to $10,680. All prices are per person based on double occupancy, and include accommodations, all meals, alcoholic beverages, entertainment, planned excursions and applicable taxes.
The Royal Scotsman is owned by Orient-Express. To book, call 1-800-524-2420 or go to www.royalscotsman.com.
Extend your trip
If you want to stay on after your train trip in Edinburgh or London, here are some suggestions.
The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes St., is a five-star property on the Royal Mile next to Waverley Station. It generally is considered Edinburgh's most luxurious hotel. It has 188 stylish rooms, many of which have views of the Castle and Old Town. www.thebalmoralhotel.com.
The Red Carnation Collection of Boutique Hotels is recognized as among the city's finest places to stay. The collection has hotels across the capital, but two of the most charming are the Milestone, across from the entrance to Kensington Gardens, and Montagu on the Gardens, in Bloomsbury.
The Milestone, 1 Kensington Ct., was voted the top hotel of 2007 by Conde Nast Traveler readers, and it's not surprising when you consider that each room has a different theme, from the elegant Royal Ascot to the slightly naughty Mistinguett, in honor of the French cabaret performer. The Milestone is within walking distance of Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Montagu on the Gardens, 15 Montagu St., has been fashioned from nine Georgian terraced townhouses overlooking a beautiful garden. In addition to being just around the corner from the British Museum, it is an easy walk from Covent Garden. The hotel's Blue Door Bistro serves delicious modern British cuisine.
To book rooms at either hotel, call 1-877-955-1515 or go to www.redcarnation.com.