It is no secret that the ancestral home of whisky is Scotland. While Japan may be receiving the accolades in the international awards and tastings, India and a few other countries are making whisky on a small scale, the spiritual home of whisky is Scotland. That isn’t all though, Scotland boasts a great number of impressive ancient castles, beautiful valleys (or glens as they are called), incredible vistas from the top of the Munroes (mountains) and one of the only UNESCO certified dark sky spots in the British Isles. Still not tempting you to visit? How about palm trees and dolphins? The Gulf stream, a warm current that flows around the coast provides a home for a dizzying array of marine creatures and flora on the mainland, lessening the effects of the freezing arctic winds.
So lets assume that you would like to come to Scotland and tour a few distilleries, play a few rounds of golf and maybe take a hike in the Highlands. Where should you start? In my opinion the North-East has it all, along with great infrastructure to allow you to penetrate deep into the west coast or the northern highlands with a base in Aberdeen. Aberdeen has rental car companies, tour and travel agents to suit all your needs. Not to mention that the surrounding area includes dramatic castles perched on cliffs above the roaring sea, beautiful golf courses and some decent shopping, dining and nightlife. Some people would say Inverness is a better shout, however I feel that by steaming directly there you will be missing out on some of the cool stuff on the way. In this post I will walk you through how to get to the North east of Scotland from England and abroad, I will finish with a look at the accommodation in Aberdeen.
So coming to Scotland from abroad, you are presented with a few choices. Bearing in mind the extremely expensive cost of trains we will discount that option and assume that you will be flying in to one of the major built up areas in Scotland or perhaps from London or one of the large northern English cities. We will consider Aberdeen the gateway to the Speyside as it is a decent size city with all the infrastructure required to plan and execute a fantastic trip.
Flying in to London yields possibly the cheapest flights here as it is the capital and hosts several airports including budget airline carriers. From London, to get to the Whisky Trail you will have to get a bus. The train is literally 5 times more expensive. Your best bet is to get the ‘Megabus’ from London to Aberdeen. The ticket can be as cheap as 1 Pound as the website suggests however the reality is more like 10 pounds, which is an absolute steal considering the cost of the alternatives. This way you can get a connection from whatever airport you land in to the ‘Megabus’ terminal and forget about logistics all the way to Aberdeen, some 640km north. Pretty easy. Otherwise you should be looking at a low-cost carrier flight to Aberdeen from London such as ‘Easyjet’ and ‘Flybe’. Otherwise you could fly from London to Edinburgh.
Some people may see a flight to say, Manchester for almost nothing and be tempted upon looking at the map of winging it north from there. While doable, it is definitely more complicated than going from London, Glasgow or Edinburgh. The same applies for Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Newcastle is quite close to the border and is a straight shot north from there however the airports there are tiny compared to London. So if you want to fly south of the border I would highly recommend going to London. If you are adamant about the northern cities as an entry point, then you should also be looking at a ‘Megabus’ north. They are cheap and reliable as mentioned elsewhere in the article.
Flying into Glasgow or Edinburgh presents much the same deal as London. Once there either a short domestic flight (not recommended) or a ‘Megabus’ will get you where you need. Again the ‘Megabus’ company stands out at offering the most regular and cheapest services to the North-East, with hourly trips that normally stop all along the coast and importantly, Aberdeen, offering flexibility at a good price.
Expect to pay from 50-200GBP for a flight from London.
‘Megabus’ tickets are never more than 25GBP from any departure point on the mainland.
A transfer from city airport to local ‘Megabus’ rank costs on average 5GBP, with the exception of London, which is always more expensive and variable.
From the airport in Aberdeen which is set in the village of Dyce about 25Km from the city a bus will shuttle you to the city for no more than 7GBP or a taxi can be found at the rank with a fare of around 25GBP to the main thoroughfare of Union Street. The town is comprised of a small city centre area with a few options in terms of hotels and several suburbs, each with a hotel or two catering to the oil industry business clientèle. The last portion of this article I will dedicate to highlighting some of the cosiest and best value options for the first few days in Aberdeen. Remember, Aberdeen is not the cheapest place, nor do the locals want to pay for good food. As such truly quality places are few and far between though as of 2017 there is a marked improvement, with many ‘hipster’ style places opening and bringing passion into the cities Hotel, drinking and dining scene.
Out of the City –
At 60GBP a night this is one of the cheaper options outside the city centre where expensive estate/mansion hotels dominate. It is a small operation with 10 or so rooms, a restaurant, a bar and some function rooms. The rooms are large and well furnished and the staff can be friendly. It is one of the main employers of kids from the nearby high-school so do not expect high-end service. The crew in the kitchen is really just having a laugh and have very little knowledge of cooking or fine dining. A lot of food is pre-made, either that or it is cooked in huge batches in bain-maries with little thought. The brigade on the floor is slightly more variable, but expect revolving door service unless you are a local. The bar however is a real gem and will give you the feel of being in a traditional Scottish ‘Local’ pub; which it is. Funny place to stay overall as the qualities and negatives fluctuate greatly due to a lack of strong management and leadership. It is highly recommended however due to the nice rooms, price and most importantly its location on the delightful Deeside trail.
Starting at around 120GBP the Marcliffe is a beautiful old estate, set back from the Deeside Road on its own grounds. It lays claim to being one of the oldest and most established hotels out of the city with a lot of its reputation stemming from its kitchen. The estate is large and well kept with a fabulous garden and lots of facilities for guests including a spa. The restaurant is hailed as one of the better places in Aberdeen though that doesn’t say much. It holds appeal for those who want to be pampered and treated like royalty, albeit in a slightly pompous, over the top manner. The rooms are absolutely divine, soft comfortable beds, great décor and most rooms have a nice view of the grounds. It is recommended for those who fancy a dawdle along the Deeside or a spot of golf before nibbling on scallops and steak. Oh and according to them ‘Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’ opened the hotel in 1993… Claim to fame right? Please check out the ‘About Us’ section of the website, the part on the owner is hilariously redundant. I mean I wouldn’t stay there unless they hadn’t mentioned what handicap he has in golf, where he buys his shirts, what car he drives and his favourite cigars. Yeah, that kind of place, but still charming, quaint and the perfect place to explore Deeside and the rest of the North-East.
A stone’s throw from the bus station and the harbor is the inner city budget recommendation. Rooms as cheap as 50GBP make this one of the cheapest hotels in town. The building is old and cosy, as are the rooms. Seagulls from the harbor are a menace when it comes to sleep and the size of the rooms leave some to be desired. However Aberdeen is an expensive city and for such a central location, the price asked is a steal. The bar has some cool events such as Jazz evenings occasionally. Lots of shopping and restaurants around if you don’t want to brave the hotel’s own food. However since the recent opening of a nearby Shopping Complex, most independent restaurants nearby have folded, leaving a plethora of generic chain restaurants in its wake. Stay here if leaving Aberdeen soon after arrival and the logistics of such departure are an issue.
The Malmaison Hotel:
Starting at 80GBP the rooms at the Malmaison are comfortable, the amenities are plentiful so I would recommend it as good value. However it is part of a chain, so avoid if that is an issue. The restaurant is tipped to be one of the best in town. I suppose that depends what you expect. You may have noticed I am quite scathing about the restaurants set in hotels in Aberdeen, Malmaison is no exception. The menu is OK and decent value, the wine selection is inordinately boring and the service is mediocre however the decor is nice, as is the location in Aberdeen’s West-End. Recommended for those looking for a big steak and no hassle in getting to the city’s transit points. Staying in the West-End is nice, the architecture is imposing and quaint at the same time and the local parks and cafes are amongst the best in town.
So after this round-up, without much hope for a decent meal; I would like to notify the reader that coming very soon will be a review of Aberdeen’s dining and drinking scene where thankfully small independent restaurants are holding down the fort in terms of quality. This will be followed by a selection of amazing local destinations including castles and golf courses. Also coming up will be an itinerary of the Distilleries of the Speyside and where to taste all the whiskys in one place. Stay tuned.