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Van life: Driving tour of the North East 250 in Scotland

Written by Fiona

December 07 2018

This article describes a four day campervan tour of the Scottish driving route called the North East 250. It was also published in The Herald newspaper.

Bow Fiddle Rock near Portknockie.

Driving what’s known as the Old Military Road north from the small village of Spittal of Glenshee towards Tomintoul, the highest settlement in the Scottish Highlands, I feel like an ant in a country of giants. Despite hiring a larger-style campervan, the landscape of rounded mountains and vast glens belittles my presence.

My progress on the ascent into the Cairngorm National Park to reach the highest point on this road, now mapped as the modern A93, also slows to a snail’s pace. The gradient approaches almost 20 per cent in places, forcing me to engage first gear on occasion, and averages four per cent over a distance of five miles as it rises to 2119ft (646m) at Glenshee Snowsports Centre.

My eyes flick between the dashboard milometer – “only 25mph!” – and the wonders of the spectacular scenery. But it feels very good to be able to take my time. I have just embarked on a four-day journey around a new tourist trail, the North East 250 (NE250), and I feel no pressure to be anywhere soon.

So, at regular intervals, I pull into roadside laybys, alight the van and stand miniscule amid the high-rise terrain. I turn full 360-degrees to fully absorb the long road and the mountain peaks in almost every direction.

The high road towards The Lecht, in the Cairngorms.

At the ski resort, which is busy with determined late-season skiers, I am reminded of a walk many years previously when I summited two of Scotland’s “easiest” Munros. To qualify as a Munro, a mountain must be at least 3000ft tall, but thanks to the height reached by road a hike to the top of Carn Aosda (3008ft) and The Carinwell (3061ft) requires less than 3.5 miles of walking and just 1410ft of elevation gain. For such a short mountain hike the vistas of the wider Cairngorms are very rewarding.

Hiking in summer – and skiing in winter – are only two activities on a long list of attractions on the NE250. Along the 250-mile circular route, which passes through Speyside, Moray, Aberdeenshire and Royal Deeside, as well as the Cairngorms, I discover seemingly myriad places to see and things to do.

The NE250 is a great tour by campervan.

Beaches, golf courses, nature reserves, mountain biking and walking trails, whisky distilleries, castles, churches, museums and heritage centres each beckon me to stop, visit and enjoy.

Perhaps you’ve not yet heard of the NE250, yet I expect you already know of another Scottish road route, the North Coast 500. The 500-mile tour around the north-west of Scotland was launched in 2015 and is now world famous. It has brought a significant boost to visitor numbers and revenue in the area.

There is now as South West Coastal 300, too. Read my blog South West Coastal 300 in a nutshell.

Linn Falls near Aberlour.

Indeed, a study by the University of Glasgow estimates the NC500 attracted 29,000 extra visitors and £9 million additional spend in its first year.

Now the creator of the NE250, local businessman and owner of Ballindalloch Castle, Guy Macpherson-Grant, hopes to generate a similar economic injection to Scotland’s north-east. Guy said: “I believe the new route offers visitors the very best that Scotland has to offer. I’m excited by the potential of the North East 250 to bring more visitors to our area.”

Back on the NE250, I enjoy a swift descent through heather-covered moorlands to the village of Braemar. The popular tourist village brims with sightseeing opportunities, such as the Royal residence of Balmoral Castle, 17th century Braemar Castle and Crathie Kirk.

The NE250 travels north again, leaving behind busy Braemar for more wilderness landscapes. The route turns sharp west on to a smaller road, the A939, heading for Cock Bridge, before passing another ski resort, The Lecht, and descending again to Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands at 345m.

A wildly beautiful drive, you’ll feel remote from civilisation yet at Tomintoul you enter the vibrant Glenlivet Estate. The rolling hills and fertile soils have attracted people to live and work in the area since prehistoric times.

Glenlivet Estate and the wider Moray Speyside region are synonymous with whisky making and another tourist route, the Malt Whisky Trail, meets the NE250 to offer many options for visiting distilleries and a historic cooperage.

Spey Bay is a great place for spotting dolphins.

Walkers and mountain bikers will also delight in a network of waymarked trails across the estate.

From Tomintoul, the NE250 departs the Old Military Road, originally built in the mid-1700s under instruction of Major William Caulfeild, and follows a peaceful road to the whisky settlements of Knockandhu and Glenlivet before joining a busier road, the A95, just south of Ballindolloch.

On reaching Aberlour, also home to a picture-postcard whisky distillery, I take up my booking for a campervan pitch at the newly upgraded Speyside Gardens Camping and Caravan Park. Husband and wife owners Olly and Amy Lyon are anticipating greater numbers of guests thanks to the NE250.

Olly said: “We believe the NE250 route will introduce our beautiful area to many more people and hopefully it will bring a boost to local businesses and attractions.”

One of many beautiful coves and beaches on the north coast. This one is found between Pennan and Aberdour.

Already I have seen so many more tourism gems than I ever knew existed and my journey is not even a third completed.

I am fortunate with the spring weather although many locals are keen to tell me how much sunnier and drier it is in the north-east of Scotland compared to the west. “Mind, it can be a couple of degrees cooler,” one shop owner told me.

From Aberlour, the NE250 continues north to reach Spey Bay on the Moray Firth. The landscape changes from gently undulating farmland to flatter coastal plains before I see the sea. This coast is popular for wildlife spotting, especially dolphins.

Several former fishing settlements, such as Findochty, Portnockie and Cullen, feature must-see historic harbours and pretty beaches. I find myself meandering slowly between each before I park up and investigate a coastal walking path that links the settlements.

A well-trodden trail from Cullen takes me to a cove to view a slanted arched rock called Whale’s Mouth. Further along the shore at Portknockie is the striking sea arch, Bow Fiddle Rock.

Back on the road going east, I spot another signpost, this time for Findlater Castle. While the ancient building is in ruins, the airy cliff-top location is magnificent.

I have another campervan pitch for the night near Banff but before booking in the calm, bright evening affords me the time to explore the grounds of Duff House, a Georgian estate house owned by Historic Scotland.

Kinnaird Head lighthouse at Fraserburgh (and right next door to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.) Lighthouse Museum).

Almost half way around the 250-mile tourist trail, I set off on day three for the longest section of my trip. I might normally expect to drive 85 miles in less than two hours but it takes me almost 10 hours because there is so much to see.

My first port of call is the tiny settlement of Pennan, made famous as the fictional village of Ferness in the 1980s film Local Hero. The road down – and back up – is crazily steep but well worth it for the picturesque setting.

Bullars of Buchan.

I follow another hillier coastal path on foot to Aberdour Bay, where I discover a string of sandy coves hidden between rocky cliffs.

Driving further east and then south through the large fishing town of Fraserburgh, the eastern coast of Aberdeenshire serves up more fabulous landmarks. Atmospheric Bullers of Buchan is a collapsed sea cave, located adjacent to a precariously perched hamlet.

Next is Slains Castle, an imposing cliff-top ruin accessed by a narrow sandy road. The castle is said to be the inspiration for the 1897 novel Dracula.

Atmospheric ruins: Slains Castle.

The beaches are long, plentiful and sandy on Aberdeenshire’s coast. Near the village of St Fergus I follow a tourist sign for Scotston Beach where I am rewarded by a superb stretch of yellow sand brilliantly hidden behind high grass-topped dunes.

The NE250 skirts the north-east’s largest settlement of Aberdeen, although there is no reason why you shouldn’t visit. In fact, many people will choose to start and finish the NE250 at the granite city.

After a night at the largest caravan park of my trip at Maryculter, west of Aberdeen, I drive the final 65 miles of the loop. Heading west through beautiful Royal Deeside country the attractions come thick and fast, including the 16th century tower house of Crathes Castle with its lovely gardens and a Go Ape adventure course; the nature reserve of Muir of Dinnet; and Forestry Scotland’s Cambus o’ May trails.

Soon, I can see the mountains of the Cairngorms again and I drive back through Braemar, stopping for a lovely café lunch, before entering the long glen, this time downhill, back to Spittal of Glenshee.

On reflection, I wished I had taken a week rather than four days to travel the NE250 – and I know I will return soon.

Spey Bay is a great place for spotting dolphins.

Travel notes on North East 250

Day 1: Overnight at Speyside Gardens Camping and Caravan Park.

Day 2: Overnight at Wester Bonnyton Caravan and Camping Site, Gamrie, Banff. www.westerbonnyton.co.uk

Day 3: Overnight at Deeside Holiday Park, Maryculter.

I hired a Fiat Tribute 670 campervan from Open Road Scotland, near Glasgow Airport, to drive the NE250. See openroadscotland.com.

This article appeared in The Herald newspaper. See pdf 1 and pdf 2.

Further details of the North East 250 see www.northeast250.com.

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