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Scotland's Wild Highlands & Islands

Itinerary

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Day 1: Inverness, Scotland / Contin
Our Scotland nature adventure begins in Inverness, the largest city and cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. From Inverness, a transfer is included to our historic country house hotel located just outside the village of Contin, about a 30-minute drive. Coul House, a grand stone manor house built in 1821, is the centerpiece of the Coul estate established by the Mackenzie clan in 1560. Gather for a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leader this evening.

Day 2: Black Isle / Cromarty Firth Private Cruise
From Contin, skirt the Black Water River east to Black Isle, which is neither an island nor black—it’s actually a small peninsula jutting into the North Sea and an inviting, little-known corner of Scotland that awaits our discovery today. From the village of Cromarty at the tip of Black Isle, we board a private boat for an excursion into Cromarty Firth, a narrow inlet hemmed in by steep cliffs. This protected marine area is home to Scotland's best-known pod of bottlenose dolphins, the most northerly such population in the world. Famously inquisitive, they sometimes swim right alongside our boat. Keep an eye out, too, for harbor porpoises, common and gray seals, and the occasional minke whale. Return to our boutique inn for a memorable dinner featuring contemporary Scottish cuisine prepared by Coul House's accomplished chef.

Day 3: Highlands Traverse / Lochinver
A scenic drive is in store as we cross the rugged Highlands of the interior to Scotland's wild west coast. These rocky heights, rising above 4,000 feet, divide Scotland's crenellated Atlantic coast from the fertile coastal plain and estuaries on the east. Pass tranquil lochs and glacier-carved glens as we wind through mountains cloaked in forest and heather, stopping to admire misty vistas. Look for resident wildlife with help from our Expedition Leader, a first-rate Scottish naturalist, who knows this terrain intimately. We might spot nesting golden eagles, red deer browsing in the lush meadows, or various woodland and coastal birds. Our destination is the fishing village of Lochinver near the head of Loch Inver, a major sea inlet on Scotland's northwest coast. From our small lodge base on a hillside overlooking the harbor below, we spend two nights surrounded by some of the last unspoiled wilderness in Europe.

Day 4: Handa Island, Inner Hebrides
Explore some of Scotland's most dramatic and least-visited coastline today as we drive north crossing to the Inner Hebridean island of Handa, managed as a nature reserve by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Torridonian sandstone cliffs rise in 400-foot vertical walls from the Atlantic Ocean on the island’s northern coast, providing some of Europe’s most important seabird breeding grounds. Each summer, some 200,000 seabirds come here to nest, including internationally significant populations of guillemots, razorbills and great skuas. Several families of red grouse and common snipe also inhabit the island, all of which are remarkably approachable. Spend the day walking atop these dramatic cliffs, admiring coastal panoramas and observing the flurry of life in the cacophonous bird colonies. Get an up-close vantage point on the birds’ daily activities, from nest-building to feeding chicks and defending broods from marauding avian predators. Kittiwakes, fulmars and shags also nest on the cliff ledges, and a small number of puffins breed in burrows that line the edges of the clifftops. The sea cliffs also offer a vantage point for whale watching, and we’ll hope for glimpses of common dolphin, Risso's dolphin, minke whale and basking shark. Once we reach the mainland again, we walk to a viewpoint overlooking the Old Man of Stoer, a 200-foot-high sandstone sea stack standing as a lone tower overlooking the vast Atlantic beyond. 

Please note: September departures will not visit Handa Island, since seabirds will not be present at this time of year. An alternate activity will be provided. 

Day 5: Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides—Callanish Standing Stones / Isle of Harris
Drive south to Ullapool this morning to catch the ferry for Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, one of the main islands in the Outer Hebrides. From here, we cross the island to find one of Scotland's most intriguing archaeological sites, the Callanish Standing Stones. This 5,000-year-old ring of 13 gneiss pillars is arranged in a cruciform pattern around a 14-foot central monolith. Erected on the west coast of Lewis in the late Neolithic era, predating Stonehenge, the stones were a focus for ritual activity during the Bronze Age. Several other stone circles, arcs and  alignments are also visible from the main site. Historians estimate the site was abandoned around 1,000 B.C. and ultimately buried beneath a thick layer of peat turf, not unearthed until 1857. We also visit Dun Carloway broch, a 1st-century Iron Age drystone structure with a hollow interior, and the best-preserved such stone roundhouse in the Outer Hebrides, with a portion of its 30-walls still intact.  

Continue from Lewis to the Isle of Harris, a diverse landscape of mountains and moorlands, crofts, lochs, meadows and sandy beaches. Its craggy coast, defined by cliffs and secret coves, offers nesting habitat for myriad seabirds. On beach walks, discover the wildflower meadows on the machair, a sparse veneer of green atop the sand, which bursts into color in summertime. The single-lane “Golden Road” winds along the east coast of Harris among miniature fjords and tiny hamlets with Viking and Gaelic names. Along the way, we visit historic rural settlements and stop at a weaving shop where world-famous Harris tweed is produced. Arrive in Tarbert, the main town on Harris, to spend the next two nights. 

Day 6: Shiant Isles Seabird Cruise
Today holds an exclusive opportunity: a private cruise to the Shiant Isles, one of the world's most famous seabird colonies. Located between Skye and Lewis, these columnar basalt islands are known in Gaelic as Na h-Eileanan Seunta, or the "Enchanted Isles." Though this tiny island group is uninhabited by humans, it is home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including a quarter-million puffins—2% of the entire global population. Some 7% of all razorbills in the U.K. also breed here, along with colonies of guillemots, cormorants, shags and great skuas. We often see seals lounging on the rocks, too. If the weather is fair, the option exists to extend our 5-hour voyage to include the southern Bays of Harris coastline, marked with several deserted villages. On the return voyage, explore the abandoned crofting community of Bhalamus, once the heart of a 19th-century sheep farm on the coast of Lewis. Continuing into Loch Seaforth, which forms the boundary between Lewis and Harris, view several more old settlements and look for golden and white-tailed eagles on the cliffs before returning to our hotel for tea time.

Please note: September departures will not visit the Shiant Islands, since the seabirds will have departed by this time. The boat cruise will explore more of the coast of Harris instead. 

Day 7:  Eilean Donan Castle / Scenic Train / Contin
Return by ferry from Tarbert, the main port on Harris, to Uig on the Isle of Skye. Continuing over the bridge that connects Skye to the mainland, we stop to visit Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland's most iconic sights. Strategically situated on a small island where three great sea lochs come together, the original 13th-century fortification was built to protect adjacent lands from Viking raids. Today's evocative structure was restored from ruins in the early 20th century. 

From Kyle of Lochalsh, board our first-class carriage on the Kyle Line train, a remote route across Scotland's western mountains heralded as one of the "Great Train Journeys of the World" by Michael Palin in his BBC series. The scenic 2-hour trip to Garve passes traditional villages and skirts Loch Carron, backdropped by the imposing hulk of Torridon, before traversing open glens where red deer frequently browse. From Garve, it's just a 10-minute drive back to Contin, where our hosts at Coul House await our return. Surrounded by forest, lochs and trout streams, this family-run inn offers a serene retreat from which to explore the Highlands. If time permits, we'll walk through the forest to a waterfall for a chance to look for leaping salmon. Back at our cozy inn, a crackling fire in the lounge invites settling in with a wee dram of Scotch before dinner.

Day 8: Scottish Wildcat Breeding Project / Canoeing
Visit the Scottish Wildcat Breeding Conservation Program at the Aigas Field Center this morning, where we learn about efforts to conserve the United Kingdom's only native feline and most endangered mammal. Flanked by remnants of ancient Caledonian pine forest to the west and marine firths to the east, the center is an important educational site in the northern Highlands, dedicated to sharing Scotland’s wild natural heritage. Since 2011, the center has participated in a crucial national program to bring this small, muscular tabby cat back from the brink of extinction. Then head deeper into the glen for a canoeing excursion, providing an intimate perspective on the rugged beauty of the Highlands. Depending on weather conditions and the group's composition, we'll either paddle the gentle Beauly River into steep-walled Aigas Gorge, watching for osprey overhead, or canoe on Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin, a tranquil sea inlet with small islands and sheltered coves that beckon exploration as we scout for wildlife on the shoreline. The region is home to red deer, pine marten, golden eagles and many more species native to the area. Back at Coul House, celebrate our final evening together with a festive farewell dinner.

Day 9: Inverness / Depart
After breakfast, transfer to Inverness to meet departing flights.

Physical Rating: Moderate

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The Cotswolds: Exploring English Nature
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The Cotswolds: Exploring English Nature

On walks through ancient beech forest and wildflower meadows, along hedgerows and trout-filled streams, delve into an idyllic rural landscape with a focus on native habitats, wildlife and conservation.
8 Days / May, Jun, Sep & Oct, From $7595
NEW TRIP!
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