Land of the free, home of the brave — and a destination full of awe and wonder. Adele Thurlow explores the Highlands, the isles and cosmopolitan Scotland

Where heroes hide in the hills

The Highlands is, according to tourism publications, where you'll find purple mountains, mist, heather, bagpipes, and heroes hiding in the hills — an apt claim given the Highlands were the site of historic battles aplenty.

Witness a re-enactment of one of the most harrowing battles in British history, the Jacobite Rising, at the award-winning Culloden Visitor Centre, which stands alongside the battlefield.

Urquhart Castle, with spectacular views overlooking Loch Ness, also faced considerable action and bloodshed during the 13th to 17th centuries. Its ruins speak of the repeated attacks it faced while under the control of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.'

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The considerably less ruinous Inverlochy Castle Hotel in Fort William, offers 16 plush 19th-century rooms amid a Highlands landscape about which Queen Victoria wrote in her diary, "I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot".

The best-looking city

Edinburgh's busy Royal Mile (The Highstreet) is one of the most iconic streets in Scotland. Photo / 123RF
Edinburgh's busy Royal Mile (The Highstreet) is one of the most iconic streets in Scotland. Photo / 123RF

Of all Scotland's cities, Edinburgh must be the best looking. The imposing Edinburgh Castle, numerous spires and the craggy hill of Arthur's Seat provide a dramatic, theatrical setting that is impressive in any weather or season.

Even if you aren't a history nerd, the castle is a must-see but don't expect a lavishly decorated palace like many of its European counterparts — this humble castle was not just a royal residence, but a prison and an army garrison.

Stroll the medieval Royal Mile from the castle to the palace of Holyroodhouse — the Queen's official Scottish residence — before refuelling at nearby Brewlab. This speciality cafe with artisanal produce also features a training lab where you can get behind the controls of a commercial espresso machine to master the art of tamping, extraction, pulling and steaming.

The city of design

Where do you think you'd find one of the best art schools in Europe? Paris? Vienna? Try Dundee. The University of Dundee's Art, Design and Architecture Degree show each May celebrates the success of graduating students and attracts about 15,000 visitors, including some of the most influential people in the world of art and design.

The renowned art school is just one facet of Dundee's reinvention as a destination for food and art. The city's $1.8 billion waterfront development, which began almost two decades ago, encompasses 240 ha stretching 8km along the River Tay. It includes new hotels, cafes, restaurants, and retail areas, plus the imminent opening of the V&A Museum of Design.

Dundee's dining scene is also undergoing a transformation. Previously, the city's only culinary claim to fame was as the birthplace of marmalade, but there's a rapidly expanding offering of contemporary restaurants, cafes and specialist food shops. The Playwright restaurant is where you'll find some of the most inventive fine-dining in Dundee with proudly sourced Scottish ingredients.

Hebrides hopping

Island hopping and white sand beaches aren't usually what spring to mind when planning a Scottish holiday, but the islands that make up the Outer Hebrides feature some of Europe's most beautiful stretches of sand.

Luskentyre is one of the largest and most spectacular beaches on Harris in the Outer Hebrides and has been named one of the UK's best beaches. Day trips are available from Inverness to the Isle of Skye, the largest of the major islands in the Inner Hebrides. Here you can join climbing enthusiasts, hikers or horse trekkers exploring the many peaks of The Cuillin.

No visit to Scotland would be complete without a dram or two — and why not go for a royal favourite? Laphroaig whiskey (laphroaig.com), which holds Prince Charles' warrant, is produced on the Inner Hebrides' Isle of Islay. There are eight working distilleries on the 600 sq km island famous for producing some of the world's strongest single malt whiskies — endearing to some and divisive for others.

The birthplace o' golf

Games are recorded as far back as the 15th century, so you can tee off just as Mary Queen of Scots did at Musselburgh Links in East Lothian.

Despite the esteemed honour as being generally recognised as the oldest golf course in the world, it's has very affordable green fees.

To many, the Old Course at St Andrews is a site of pilgrimage. The ancient 16th century links course and six adjacent courses form St Andrews Links — "The home of golf". Try your luck with the traditional ballot system to follow in the footsteps of legends, or book a guided walk. (NB — St Andrews' West Sands beach was featured in the opening scenes of Chariots of Fire.)

Top 3 scenic roads

1. Ullapool to Durness (110km)

This route in the far northwest is Scotland at its wildest and most scenic. Mountains, lochs and villages combine to provide an unsurpassable scenic experience. Notable highlights include Sandwood Bay, reputedly the most beautiful beach in Britain; the 275m-long Kylesku Bridge, engineered by the Sydney Opera House designer; and the adjoining B869, which is listed among the world's most dangerous (and spectacular) roads.

2. Stirling to Skye (350km)

Start at Stirling Castle (often rated higher by visitors than Edinburgh Castle) then, following the A85, wind through mountainous landscapes, across heather-covered moors, climb one of Scotland's best-loved mountains, Buachaille Etive Mor, and fuel up on award-winning fish and chips at The Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum.

3. Ardnamurchan Loop

The Ardnamurchan peninsula is wild and remote. Venturing as far towards the coast as possible will lead you to Point of Ardnamurchan (the most westerly point in mainland UK) and stunning Sanna Beach with white shell sand, turquoise water and the possibility of spotting dolphins, whales, sea eagles, otters and pine martens.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Glasgow, via Dubai.

Further details: See visitscotland.co.uk.