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Fairytale forests and chocolate-box scenery? Head to Perthshire

NZ Herald
By Katie Wood

With castles, mountains, quaint villages and some of the country's most spectacular forests, Perthshire is like all of Scotland rolled into one, writes Katie Wood.

If there's one part of Scotland that knocks your socks off in autumn, it's Perthshire – slap bang in the middle of Scotland, so also a great touring base. You may not want to leave though, once you're there.

It's utterly beautiful and will remind you of home.

Visit Scotland sells it as "All of Scotland in One", and it is. You'll find castles, palaces, mountains, tumbling waterfalls, marvellous fishing rivers, great hotels and restaurants.

Located around the city of Perth, the boundaries extend from Strathmore in the east, to the Drumochter Pass in the North, Ben Lui and Rannoch Morr in the west and in the south, the village of Aberfoyle (where I used to live and my two sons were born in the 1980s.)

There's much to admire about the area, but what will be the abiding memory you take back with you (along with 500 photos) – the trees.

The number of wonderful trees and spectacular forests in this area is amazing and makes it the perfect October or November break.

Perthshire boasts treasures such as the oldest living thing in Europe - the 5000-year-old Fortingall Yew ; one of the tallest trees in Britain at The Hermitage ; the tallest hedge in the world at Meikleour; the widest conifer in Britain - a giant redwood at Cluny House Gardens, and so the list goes on.

Here you find the tallest, biggest, widest specimens of trees not just in Britain but all of Europe. If you thought sitka spruces were ugly commercial trees that blight the landscape, wait till you see the example in Strathearn, Perthshire.

You want superb autumn colours? They're here. This is, after all, what they call Big Tree Country.

From the visitors' point of view accessing the woods and Big Trees is easy. Miles of way- marked forest walks make for straightforward access, and there are even information lines to tell visitors where the colours are at their best that day, as the trees turn, dictated by the weather.

It's a short walk from the chocolate-box village of Dunkeld to The Hermitage, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. This stretch of magical Perthshire forest was an 18th-century pleasure ground for the Dukes of Atholl.

The picturesque village of Dunkeld. Photo / Getty Images
The picturesque village of Dunkeld. Photo / Getty Images

Here, among the follies and gazebo overlooking the waterfalls, you can find huge groves of Douglas fir dating back 140 years, giving a cathedral-like feel as you walk under their towering branches. This is the location of the UK champion Douglas fir - once measured as the tallest tree in the British Isles, reaching 65m.

Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you walk along the River Braan at The Hermitage – you may even spot beavers. Look out too for the totem pole carved from a Douglas fir (of course) by three native Canadians from the Squamish Nation of Vancouver. And this is the part of Scotland where you don't need to see non-native large grey squirrels (I always think of them as rats with tails – mind you, they regularly eat half my flowerbed, so I guess I'm just bitter), but no, here you find the native petite red squirrels. And at The Hermitage you're quite likely to see them darting about in the tree tops (the grey ones can't get to the high tree tops, so they're safe there). You're quite likely also to see salmon leaping in the autumn as they head to the spawning grounds further along the river.

You're likely to see salmon leaping in the River Braan in autumn. Photo / Getty Images
You're likely to see salmon leaping in the River Braan in autumn. Photo / Getty Images

Autumn is a busy time in Perthshire with numerous festivals and events to keep all the family busy.

The Enchanted Forest is a highlight on the autumnal calendar. This year it runs from September 29 till October 30. At Faskally Wood, near Pitlochry, this is Scotland's favourite sound and light show – the first outdoor illumination event in the UK to plant a tree as part of the national Queen's Green Canopy initiative.

If you stay overnight here next day's treat can be seeing Faskally Wood in daylight. This extensive woodland area lies within Tay Forest Park on the banks of Loch Dunmore, and Pitlochry is on your doorstep for accommodation and restaurants. Faskally is less than 2km away.

At the wood you can enter the "foresters' classroom" and, of course, find a wide range of tree species, some more than 200 years old. The layout of the wood is manmade, as it was created in the 19th century in the grounds of Faskally House, which was used as a Forestry Commission school.

Autumn reflections on Loch Faskally. Photo / Getty Images
Autumn reflections on Loch Faskally. Photo / Getty Images

The wood has several well-signposted paths with walks of all categories.

Other walks in this area that will remind you of home form part of what's known as the Pitlochry Path Network. This includes The Killiecrankie Walk (a little more than 3km) and The Bealach Walk (16km).

You won't be stuck to find a good place to lay your head in Perthshire.

There's a range of accommodation for all budgets, from camping and caravanning to luxury hotels. Worth a look is the Atholl Arms in Dunkeld and Craigvrack Hotel in Pitlochry.

In Crieff, the choice has got to be the famous Hydro Hotel, which continues its tradition to please all generations. This is a truly traditional hotel, often booked for a stay by three generations of the same family as it does indeed cater for all of them.

Following an impressive refurbishment, they now offer self-catering, a variety of hotel rooms, a fabulous leisure centre, and all manner of sports: golf, pony trekking and a wonderful kids club.

Red squirrels are at home in Perthshire's dense forests. Photo / Getty Images
Red squirrels are at home in Perthshire's dense forests. Photo / Getty Images

The ultimate place to unwind though, in this neck of the woods is Gleneagles.

Whether it's walking, golfing, riding, falconry, fishing, off-road driving or indulging in a deluxe spa, this is your ultimate playground. In the Leisure Club you find two swimming pools, an outdoor hot pool, tennis courts, high-tech gym, cycle hire and walking/running tracks.

For a meal out you'll never forget – or indeed a few nights' stay - try the lesser-known Four Seasons Hotel at St Fillans. Situated on the banks of Loch Earn, it offers bedrooms, chalets and a holiday apartment, but it's the food you're really going to remember about this place.

Offering fine contemporary Scottish cuisine at excellent prices, you can indulge in some superb specialities such as: squat lobster and chervil pudding, wilted spinach, tomato stew, shellfish bisque; pan-seared hand-dived king scallops; home-cured whisky and lemon cured Shetland salmon, or how does their signature entree of gateau of Scotch Angus/Limousin beef fillet, Comrie haggis, red onion confiture, foie gras, Glayva jus sound? If you want a taste of Scottish food, this is a good choice.

Back in historic, bridge-strewn, Perth, with its wonderful boutiques and cafes, you'll find 63 Tay St, where Chef Graeme Pallister uses locally sourced produce including seafood, game and meat, to create fabulous meals in what is generally regarded as Perth's best restaurant. Try dishes such as Bay of St Andrews half-lobster gratin and Aberdeen Angus Gold ribeye steak, homemade chips (to die for, by the way), herb butter & bittersweet tomato salad.

If you're in Perth and a keen gardener, try out Branklyn Garden. Cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, this is a beautiful hillside garden, created in the 1920s and covering nearly a hectare. It's within walking distance of Perth City Centre and boasts a wonderful collection of rare species, exotic plants and curious cultivars.

Gardeners and botanists come from all over the world to admire Branklyn's collection, particularly the rhododendrons, alpines, herbaceous plants and the Woodland. It also holds several National Collections of plants, including Meconopsis, Rhododendron (Taliense section) and Cassiope.

First time visitor to Scotland ? Here's some advice from a local. Bring a rain jacket with a hood; bring stout walking boots, and if you come in summer and venture to the western part of Perthshire – or beyond – for heaven's sake bring (or buy when there) midge repellent. These tiny pesky little insects sure can bite.

Views over the Tay Forest Park near Pitlochry, Perthshire.
Views over the Tay Forest Park near Pitlochry, Perthshire.

Contrary to popular myth it doesn't always rain in Scotland, and we do also get glorious sunny days (though it might rain in the afternoon … but it'll be warm rain), so also bring sunscreen. It rarely gets above 25C, so warm, even for you Kiwis with your lovely climates.

And another thing - don't call anything Scottish "English". The number of people all over the world who, when referring to the UK just call it "England" might be one reason the Scottish National Party are in power. It's as bad as Kiwis being confused with Aussies! But the Scots love the Kiwis. We know what it's like to have a larger neighbour …

All Scotland is steeped in history, with castles, palaces and historic, private houses open to the public. So forget New England's Fall, the colours of Perthshire beats it hands down – without the crowds.

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