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Northern Belle; The Orient Express on Scotland’s West Highland Line

It was only eleven o’clock, and I was cautiously eyeing my first ever Bellini and wondering whether drinking alcohol this early was a good idea. Not when I had an article to write and there was the promise of Champagne – Laurent-Perrier no less – a little further down the line. But the tall monogrammed glass, with its pressed peach puree and sparkling Prosecco taunted me and I felt somewhat obliged to take a sip or two. I justified it to myself with the knowledge that it was a very Venetian drink, the invention of one Giuseppe Cipriani at the original Harry’s Bar in Venice. Certainly fitting, it was also crisp and fruity, refreshing and light. Suddenly pre-lunch drinking was entirely acceptable, and I swiftly liberated the glass of its entire contents.

It was a Sunday morning on a marvellously clear day and I was on a crowded train in Scotland, heading north-northwest on the West Highland Line to Oban. But this was no ordinary train – I was seated aboard the elegant Northern Belle, sister train to the infamous Orient Express.

Around me the carriage was a hub of activity. Every seat was taken and travellers were clearly in awe of their surroundings. The interior design of the new Duart carriage is impressive to behold, and it’s not often you find yourself on such a remarkable train enjoying such a unique experience. But the views that were flashing by on either side were vying for our attention as well. The shimmering waters of the Clyde Estuary, the dark crevices of the Cobbler and its neighbouring mountains, the murky depths of Loch Long and Loch Lomond. It was hard to know where to look first.

The Northern Belle is the epitome of luxury, as you might expect from a train that bears the mark of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Stepping aboard, I had to wait a brief moment as a liveried steward in a smart maroon tunic laid a red carpet below the step of the train. My jacket was taken and stowed overhead. My ticket, in its smart brushed-leather folder was checked, and my personalised menu card was left for me to read over and confirm. It was quick, efficient and downright polite. Far removed from any rail journey I’d taken before.

The Duart is the newest edition to the Northern Belle. Once part of the Royal Household train, it’s now had a makeover and received the Orient treatment. It suits its new colours and livery, and at the front of the train, it offers space for twenty-four privileged passenger to travel in style. Every aspect of its transformation has been carefully managed over the past four years, with hand painted panels, restored woodwork and beautifully upholstered seating, there’s been nothing missed.

In fact, everything aboard this impressive locomotive screams quality and luxury. From the heavy silver salt and pepper pots, to the specially commissioned glassware and the Dudson Fine China plates which read ‘Made exclusively for the Northern Belle’, there’s nothing that doesn’t ooze originality here. And that extends to the food – but then isn’t that one of the real reasons travellers book aboard these trains? The experience, the sights…and the victuals?

Brunch began with a refreshing seasonal fruit salad ladled from a large silver tureen, and was swiftly followed by a toasted crumpet topped with a smoked salmon and scrambled egg parcel, caviar and a light drizzle of hollandaise. It didn’t last long. Fresh pastries followed soon afterwards, along with a strong and smooth fair-trade coffee.

By early afternoon we had rumbled past Arrochar, Ardlui and Crianlarich, and around Dalmally, a light lunch arrived. Roasted chicken with asparagus and a barley risotto. A glass of house Chardonnay, again, specially commissioned for the Northern Belle, was poured. We waited in Dalmally for the single track to clear, gazing out of the windows at the mountains around us. They were growing in stature the further north we went.

The landscape flattens out again as this line gets closer to the sea, passing alongside Loch Awe and the inimitable Cruachan ridge with its underground power station. Nearer Oban, the Connel Bridge comes into view. It marks the point where the ocean meets Loch Etive with such force that the current reaches a swirling, terrifying 14 knots and forms a whirlpool almost directly beneath the crossing. The waters here are home to only the hardiest of marine life and on the odd occasion, a foolhardy diver or two as well. We trundled on, the clacking of the Belle’s wheels on the track transporting us back to the Golden Age of travel. Everything was leisurely and timed to perfection.

Our arrival in Oban was marked by the haunting sounds of a bagpiper, fully dressed in all his regalia, and it was off to enjoy everything this fascinating seaside town has to offer. Seal-spotting excursions, kayaking tours, boutique shopping, and much more. You could spend a week or two on this edge of the coastline and still not find the time to experience it all.

After a visit to the Oban Distillery, one of the smallest in the country, we wandered aimlessly for a few hours, taking in the sights and enjoying the fresh sea air. Although there’s plenty to do, the excitement of our return journey was mounting and guests were returning to the Northern Belle well in advance of her departure time, such was the collective eagerness to board her again.

If the outgoing journey had been extraordinary, then it’s fair to say that the return journey continued to impress. We were welcomed on board by Jess, one of our stewards, this time dressed in black for dinner service, holding a slate tray elegantly laid with a selection of hors d’oeuvres. Duck and grape chutney crostini, blue cheese puffed pastry, and so on. Each row as mouth-watering as the next. The champagne flowed freely the minute we sat down, and almost moments after we set out from the station, dinner began. A red pepper and sweet potato soup, flavoured with just enough chive crème fraiche to ease the hidden spice, was followed at a precise, but unhurried pace, by a large medallion of beef and perfectly cooked vegetables.

The cheese board arrived as no cheese board has done before, a large slab of wood that stretched between the tables on either side of the carriage, literally groaning beneath the weight of the different, but carefully chosen cheeses. Desert was a sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream, light, airy and ineffably tasty. Coffee, wine, more champagne, petit fours…the list went on, and it wasn’t long before I was groaning every bit as much as that cheese board had been.

The service onboard the Orient trains is perfectly managed. There’s no austerity here, none of the sombreness that I had imagined there would be. It’s not an ‘airs and graces’ type of experience – unless that’s what you’re looking for. It’s perhaps best described as having a certain civility about it, a chivalry that’s not often enjoyed in today’s modern world. And that’s a pleasure that I think most of us secretly yearn to savour.

The stewards, resplendent in their immaculate uniforms clearly enjoy their work, and it shows in the manner they deal with their customers. They treat you well; give you the service you expect, but chat along when you’d like them to. They know their train, that’s perfectly apparent. Simon, the Duart’s head steward clearly demonstrated his lengthy service by answering every question with facts and figures, both about the train and the company itself. And it’s refreshing to see people take such an interest in their place of work.

I travel regularly, and as most of you will know from reading these posts, I have a bug for exploring as far abroad as I can reach, but I’ve seen my home country in a new light now. I can go so far as to say that I feel truly privileged to have been part of the Duart’s maiden trip along this line. The next time I find myself travelling that direction I know I’ll be looking towards the rails and hoping for a glimpse of the graceful Northern Belle passing alongside.

This journey is ‘bucket-list’ material, and it’s not to be relegated to Number 50 either. Jot it down and book a trip up. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Fiona Galloway, Editor

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Dudley Zoo and Castle, Dudley, England

As you drive into Dudley you can’t help but notice the impressive ruins that stands atop a solitary mound. It’s noticeable because beneath the ancient defence lies an urban sprawl of hotels, housing estates and modern shopping precincts, all shiny and industrialised, compared to what used to be the stronghold of Dudley Castle.

Many years ago, the fortification was home to the Lords of Dudley, and with their title, wealth and power, came conflict and war. Their castle became a much fought over prize, and over the years it garrissoned troops, was visited by Queen’s, and ultimately destroyed by fire. Now, it’s a home of a different kind, with the animals of Dudley Zoo taking up residence in its grounds.

The zoo is somewhat of a marvel to behold. From first glance it might not appear too impressive. There’s little to see as you walk through the gates and up the sloping path apart from a few flamingo’s and a spider monkey or two, but as you reach the summit of the mound, which is all but invisible from the roadway, you suddenly realise that there’s far more to see here than you first thought.

The reptile house is home to some remarkable species of endangered snakes, as well as a Monitor lizard, a creature I’ve always wanted to see. Bears were sleeping on wooden slited beds, oblivious to the peering eyes around them, siberian tigers wandered beneath our feet, and a pair of snow leopards displayed their remarkable agility, bounding into the trees and settling precariously on branches just so they could stare back at us.

Dudley Zoo is fairly user-friendly. There are two enclosures, one for Lemurs and the other for Penguins, where visitors can walk through their habitat, passing within close quarters of these remarkable animals. It’s not quite hands-on enough that you’re allowed into the hunting dog enclosure, and grooming lions is strictly off the menu as well, but for visitors who really do want to step beyond the glass, Dudley offers a ‘Be a Zoo Keeper for a Day’ programme, to give you the chance to do just that. And there’s a real emphasis here on conservation as well. Many of the animals you’ll find here are well down the endangered list, some virtually extinct in the wild.

Once the walking, the ‘oohing’ and the ‘aahing’ is all done, a small fairground area will keep kids occupied for a few hours more, and a coffee hut isn’t too far away to help renew parents vigour as well. Surprisingly, we spent a whole day wandering these paths, and it captured the interest of our two young boys for the whole time – a rare achievement indeed.

For accommodation choices near Dudley Zoo, take a look at one of Candidtraveller’s favourite hotels, the DeVere-owned Village Urban Resort Dudley. It’s literally at the bottom of the hill and within a short walk of these remarkable animals.

Drayton Manor Theme Park, England

‘Go to Drayton Manor, instead’ I was told when I’d mentioned I was thinking of taking my kids to a major theme park for a day out. ‘You’ll love it, and it’s better for the kids too!’ I was sceptical at first. I’d heard of Drayton, but I knew little about it. I didn’t know much about the rides, how big was it, was there going to be enough to keep them occupied? I decided to take the chance, and one busy Monday morning in the middle of the school summer holidays, I found myself driving up the access road and parking in a large grass-covered parking lot next to the main entrance. The surrounding trees kept the delights of Drayton Manor Park hidden for a little longer, but every now and then a scream or two, and a quick glimpse of a bright blue rollercoaster rose above the tree-line, before disappearing just seconds later. If my kids weren’t excited before we arrived, they certainly were now.

Drayton Manor is a theme park unlike any other I’ve visited. Sure it has its rides and its amusements like every other, and yes they’re scary, exciting, and in some cases, wet, but here’s a park that has a lot more to offer than the usual adrenaline thrills. Especially if you’re travelling with younger kids.

Immediately as you enter through the gates you arrive at Thomas Land, a treasure trove of rides for the under 6’s (although adults are allowed on as well). We stepped inside and queued for the Troublesome Trucks ride, the first rollercoaster my 4 and 3 year old children would experience. And an hour and a half later we were still in Thomas Land, queueing to do every ride again.

When we finally persuaded them that Drayton Manor was somewhat larger than miniature Sodor-land, Thomas himself took us on a one-way ride to the far end of the park. And we started all over again. Dino Land, the Drayton Zoo, a driving school and a friendly goose captured the boys’ attention for the next hour as we wander back towards the main attractions. In fact, there’s a real element of eductation thrown in here, and most kids probably won’t even realise they’re learning as well as having fun. Subliminal teaching, I think that’s called!

There are plenty of rides here that are designed for older kids and adults, and they’re sensibly kept to an area all of their own. It means that families travelling with younger kids only don’t have to face the crush and the crowds that surround the main attractions.

Somewhere in the middle of the park, the Ben 10 ride looms in vivid green, and at its base, a 4D movie cinema showing a 15 minute feature film called The Little Prince, (I remember studying the book in French class, many years ago) was a welcome break from all that walking.

To be succinct about it all, Drayton Manor Park is most definitely a great, family-friendly day out. It’s fairly relaxed, or as relaxed as a theme park can be, anyway. But although it’s not as large in size as some of the bigger name parks are, it’s got everything a family needs for the perfect day of fun. This Christmas, Drayton Manor Park is giving its cinema over to a 4D version of The Polar Express, which is a firm family favourite, so I suspect November will see us travelling back down to watch it just after it opens.

Drayton Manor Park has a hotel on site for families who want to turn the trip into more than just a day away. Another great family hotel to book is the Village Urban Resort Dudley, which is a short drive from the park, and is within easy access to the motorway.

Go Ape in Edinburgh at Beescraig

Apparently, jumping out of trees is additctive.  Who’d have thought?  So when I was invited back to try another Go Ape course, this time at Beescraig near Edinburgh, I litterally jumped at the chance (no pun intended, sorry!)

This course is hidden away in the remote Beescraig Country Park just outsie Linlithgow, although it’s incredibly easy to get to by car.  And the course, although slightly shorter than the Aberfoyle layout, seems to be that little bit more challenging.  I don’t know whether it was the fact that some of the zip lines seem as if you’re stepping off into thin air more than the last zip lines I tried, or whether it was the taller trees swaying in the wind that gave it a more daring feel, but my knuckles were definitely that little bit whiter than they had been before.

Beescraig has very varied challenges to try, and as with the Aberfoyle course, they often give you the option of going ‘easy’ or ‘extreme’.  I’m proud to say I was extreme the whole way through the course, although I was certainly or a tortoise on those sections than a hare.  (And before anyone points it out, yes I know they don’t climb trees!).

It was a superb day.  The group ahead of us came dressed for the occasion in cave dweller outfits that brought a smile to everyone’s faces…especially when they hopped onto the zip slides.  It’s somewhat unusual to see a club-toteing, potato sack wearing figure flying through the trees.  Our instructor, Jo, was competent and fun and let us get our feet off the ground pretty quickly once she was happy we had learned the ropes (there I go again!), which is great when you’re as impatient as I am.

Without doubt this is a fantastic way to spend a few hours, and it acts as a great workout as well, so for all you mummy’s who want to become a bit more yummy, ditch the gym and head to this fabulous Go Ape rope course for some extreme outdoor exercise instead.

Check out our last post to see how the ropes all work….  Go Ape Aberfoyle.  And can I just say that none of these pictures are of me.  I am nowhere near that graceful!

Candidtraveller loves Go Ape!

Go Ape in Aberfoyle

I don’t know how ‘Ape’ I went, when I visited the Aberfoyle location of this popular extreme activity company’s high rope courses last Friday, but swinging through trees on Tarzan ropes was probably pretty close to the real thing.  The Aberfoyle course was the first to be built in Scotland, and you can find it in the beautiful Queen Elizabeth National Park.  I turned up with a fellow writer in tow to check out it out.

The Go Ape! course is really easy to find, located at the popular David Marshall Lodge, and well signposted to get there, as well.  We started by having a coffee in the Lodge coffee shop, waiting for our allocated time, before heading over to the wood-built office to sign in.

There were six adults in our group in total and after we’d got kitted out in our harnesses, one of the instructors, Greig, showed us the ropes…so to speak!  The whole system is really straight forward.  All the carabiners and pulleys are colour coded, there’s a practice area so you can have a go at clipping on before you head off on your own, and every obstacle you arrive at has a card with instructions, just in case you aren’t sure how to get across it.  Although short, the briefing is comprehensive, and before you knew it, we were off.

I found myself flying through the air on one of the longest Zip wires in Britain, over 400ft long, and over 150ft in the air.  It was a scream.  Literally!  I’d like to say I landed gracefully, but I ended up on my back, covered in bark, and looking like an ape in camouflage!  Lovely.

There are six stages to this course, each culminating with a zip line, and each giving you the chance to tackle progressively harder challenges.  The rope crossings became higher, the platforms became narrower, and as you headed off into the depths of the forest you wondered whether you’d make it across all 35 crossings.  The whole course took us a just over an hour, and by the time I’d finished, I really had to admit that it was the most fun I’d had in ages.

Things We Liked:

  • Each part of the course is marked with a level of difficulty, so if you want to miss a bit out, you could if you wanted to.
  • Extreme sections are well-marked and offer an alternative easy route for primates who aren’t feeling too confident.
  • You get a cool certificate at the end of it.
  • The booking form (I loved this) comes with a countdown clock so you can keep track of how many days, hours and minutes you have to wait…
  • The location:  the scenery is superb, and it makes a change seeing it from this angle.
  • The staff were all excellent.  Helpful, patient and friendly.  A pretty good combination when you’re crawling around above them in an ungainful fashion.

Candidtraveller had a great day out at Go Ape!

Need Inspiration for your Days Out?

If you’ve got children and you’re stuck for what to do with them or where to go, then you can now get a little help from iVillage.co.uk.  Their handy search tool directs you to all the best places in your area which is great to give you some inspiration around the holidays, weekends, and any other time you’re tearing your hair out.

The tool divides activities by area in an easy to use map system, and then gives you the choice of activity types; active play, discovery, adventure, castles, museums and much, much more.  Every link to an activity gives you details about the exciting adventure your kids can enjoy, along with useful adult info like prices, opening times and contact details.

Make boring days off a thing of the past, and find some inspiration by visiting iVillage.co.uk.  Follow this link to go straight to their handy tool: http://www.ivillage.co.uk/tool/days-out

Nevis Range Mountain Resort, Fort William, Scotland

Everything you’d ever want to do or see on a mountain.

Heading to the Scottish Highlands means that you’re going to see mountains.  Lots and lots of mountains.  Running down the west coast of Scotland is an outstanding collection of peaks that attract and inspire everyone with a love of the great outdoors.  And where better to head for to take advantage of this stunning landscape than by visiting Fort William, the outdoor capital of the UK.

Just a short drive northwards from Fort William is a mountainous outcrop known as Aonach Mor.  Located almost right next to its better known cousin, Ben Nevis, this mountain is the site of the famous Nevis Range Mountain Resort which hosts some premier events throughout the year, from the Fort William World Cup Downhill Championships to the FIM Trials Championships and more.

It also happens to be one of the premier activities destinations for those of us who are mere mortals and who can only dream of being that good on two wheels.  From the cross country and downhill biking trails, to the skiing and snowboarding in the winter, this fabulous piece of mountainside heaven has something for everyone.

We visited a couple of weeks ago to check it out and were delighted by what we found.  The facilities offered include a very necessary gondola system that takes visitors around half way up the mountain in a short, comfortable ride.  At the mountain station you’ll find the snowgoose restaurant, which serves fabulous coffee and delicious home baking, a small souvenir shop and a kids playarea, which is great for keeping youngsters amused after the excitement of the the gondola.

There are a couple of fabulous viewpoints to walk to up here, and the vista really is quite something, although you do have to remember that you’re halfway up a mountain at this point and with the weather so changeable you should make sure you’re dressed properly for the occasion.

Back at base level we visited the cycle shop and the newly built Pinemartin Restaurant for a light lunch of pannini’s.  There’s a lovely terrace out at the back and we sat out in glorious sunshine (a change from the cloudy start we’d had to the day) watching some young riders practising their art on the skills section.

The Nevis Range Mountain Resort has a whole variety of activities to enjoy here.  There’s a high rope course, a selection of forest walks, plenty of cycling routes that range in ability level and much more.  The staff here are friendly and helpful and our visit was a real pleasure.

The candidtraveller team are delighted to recommend the Nevis Range as a fabulous place to visit.  Click here to be taken directly to their site: http://www.nevisrange.co.uk/

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