Self-catering in Highlands of Scotland

For many visitors to Scotland a trip to the highlands is an essential part of their holiday. Where the highlands start is much discussed and there are a great variety of opinions! What is undisputed is the breathtaking scenery - majestic mountains rising up from sea lochs, big empty skies and vast empty landscapes. Fort William in the south west is often a starting point for a highland holiday - known as the Outdoor Capital of the UK. Where ever you go in Fort William you can see Ben Nevis looming above - this is the tallest mountain in Britain and the climb (a long walk really) is up a well worn path from Glen Nevis. If you reach the top then on a clear day you will have stunning views over Lochaber. Mountain biking, climbing, and whitewater rafting are just a few of the popular activities that you can enjoy if you're staying in the Lochaber area. In the winter there is skiing and snowboarding at Glencoe and the Nevis Range. As it's such a popular holiday destination, the area has an excellent range of self-catering accommodation as well as cheap hostels, bed and breakfasts and top quality hotels. Glencoe is probably Scotland's most famous glen and one of the most historic - as well as the terrible Glencoe Massacre in 1691, the glen was the legendary home of the Celtic hero Fingal. More recently scenes from Harry Potter and the Prisioner of Azkaban was filmed here as well as Skyfall (Glencoe is the setting of James Bond's family home).

Many visitors to the highlands come on a walking holiday and a particular favourite is the Great Glen Way - this long distance path follows the Great Glen from Fort William to Inverness, following the natural geological faultline. The route starts at Loch Linnhe and follows the Caledonian Canal most of the way, down Loch Oich and finally along Loch Ness. Just after Drumnadrochit the route diverges to the west over moorland and then enters Inverness. There is excellent self-catering accommodation all along the Great Glen Way and most walkers take it in stages to walk the 118km - sometimes staying in a holiday cottage on the route each year and just doing 20km a year!

If you want to visit the Hebrides then you can take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Mallaig to Lochboisdale and stay on Uist as well as visit other islands too.

Loch Ness is of course on most tourists' tick list - many just pass through on a quick highland tour whilst en route on a visit to Skye but if you have time for a more leisurely stay then it's a great destination. Apart from looking for the elusive Loch Ness Monster there is much to see in the area if you're renting a self-catering cottage near Loch Ness. Drumnadrochit is a great place to base yourself - there are a variety of hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation as well as excellent vacation rentals. The ruins of Urquhart Castle is a short walk to the east of the village and has a commanding view over the Loch Ness - there have been many famous sightings of Nessie from here! If you head west then you can walk or ride in Glen Urquhart and Glen Affric - both are magnificent glens and if you're renting a highland cottage in the glens then the views will be spectacular.

Staying in Inverness, capital of the highlands, gives you a good chance to explore much of the area. Inverness itself is a beautiful city and offers lots for visitors to explore. It also has an airport so if you don't want the long drive north then it's a good option to fly there and then rent a car - or of course you can travel on public transport (bus and train journeys offer a good opportunity to enjoy the countryside). Inverness Castle dominates the city and is now the court house so not open to the public. Culloden Battlefield can be an emotional visit as many search out the cairn which mark where their clan fought and fell. Now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, the visitors' centre tells the story of the battle in a fascinating way and brings the tragic story of the Jacobites' final stand to life in the immersion cinema.

Loch and highlands

No holiday on the Moray coast is complete without a trip to see the famous Moray dolphins. There are various places where you can try to see them and one of the best is Charonry Point on the Black Isle, situated between Rosemarkie and Fortrose. There are beautiful views over the Moray Firth and if you are lucky you will see the dolphins. Going out on a boat trip also gives you a good chance of spotting them as the guides will take you to the best places. The Scottish Dolphin Centre at the mouth of the Spey is well worth a visit and hopefully you'll see the amazing bottlenose dolphins from here and there's a fascinating icehouse with exhibits and an audiovisual installation. Forres, Nairn and Elgin are all have an excellent choice of self-catering cottages as well as good hotels, B&Bs and hostels.

Going further north opens up more breathtaking highland scenery and remote empty landscapes. The North Coast 500 driving route is one of the most scenic in the world and goes along the west coast through Wester Ross. The Applecross Peninsula is a wonderful place for a peaceful holiday in a remote setting far away from the pressures of modern life. It is only reached by two roads and both are spectacular - if you come over the Pass of the Cattle you have to negotiate hairpin bends on one of the highest roads in the UK. The views over to the Isle of Skye are amazing and Applecross Bay is the perfect place for sea kayaking. If you are a beginner then learn there with a weekend kayaking course and explore the hidden beaches and paddle amongst seals and perhaps otters.

Going north from Applecross you will go through Sheildaig, past Torridon and Gairloch, then to Poolewe and Aultbea and then finally to Ullapool. All along the route is stunning mountain scenery, beautiful sea lochs and white sandy beaches - it really is breathtaking! Loch Ewe, Loch Torridon and Loch Maree are not to be missed and all offer lovely spots for picnics and wild camping. Staying in Ullapool is popular if you are driving the NC500 and has a great selection of holiday accommodation. The award-winning Seafood Shack isn't to be missed - some of the most delicious and fresh fish and seafood straight from the water with a menu that changes depending on the day's catch.

Sutherland is in the far north of the highlands and its unspoilt and empty landscapes and beaches are simply amazing. If you are on holiday in the north of Scotland then a climb up Ben Loyal will reward you with great views from the summit. Cape Wrath and the North West Highlands Geopark are well worth a visit. The RSPB Forsinard reserve is trying to preserve the threatened peatlands of Sutherland and in the summer it is the breeding ground for golden plovers, greenshanks and hen harriers - they offer guided bog walks too as well as a visitors centre where children can enjoy the free activities. Many tourists on vacation in Sutherland come to research their ancestors, often who were forced to leave during the Highland Clearances.

A holiday in Caithness will take you to the very northern reaches of Scotland. Famous for John O'Groats and Dunnet Head (the actual northern tip of Britain) there is much to see in the area. If you are interested in archealogy then search out the brochs scattered through Caithness - you could base yourself in Wick and explore a lot of the area from there. The area's tallest mountain is Morven which is a great walk to the top. Castle of Mey, the former holiday home of the late Queen Mother is a fascinating visit and the gardens and views from the castle are stunning.

The eastern side of Sutherland is ideal for a golfing holiday - the famous Royal Dornoch golf course is a mecca for golfers, who also enjoy playing on Golspie and Brora golf courses. A visit to Dunrobin Castle is essential if you are on holiday near Golspie - the setting is magnicent as are the gardens. A fishing holiday in Sutherland is a highlight for many fishermen and women - the trout and salmon fishing on lochs and rivers is superb.

Throughout the highlands you will find craftsmen and woman producing a wide range of items from jewellery, pottery, glassware, soft furnishings to name a few. The north of Scotland attracts artists as the highland light and peace are conducive to artistic pursuits and the range of talent is amazing. Highland culture is rich in music and if you can attend a ceilidh if you are on for an exhilerating evening - it's hard to resist dancing as the fiddles play the reels!

A holiday in Easter Ross offers a chance to explore highland Scotland. The area is less known so is quieter and makes an excellent location for a cycling holiday - the roads are quieter here and the National Cycle Network runs through it too. There are lots of holiday cottages near Tain, a small town on the Dornoch Firth - don't miss a visit to Anta Pottery who makes many of its products here. Glen Ord Distillery and visitor centre in Muir of Ord, Ross-shire is a great day out and touring the distillery will explain the process of making Scotch whisky.

Taking a vacation in the highlands gives you a chance to explore the lochs, mountains and wild open expanses of the region. The population is sparse and the roads empty. The vast skies are scenery are breathtaking and the absence of lights mean that dark star filled nights are the norm. Whether you want to cycle, fish, walk or climb the many Monros in the northern reaches of the British Isles, you can do them all here. There are also fascinating towns and villages to visit. Plocton, with its palm trees and pretty houses along the shore, and Glenelg, where you can get still take the ferry to Skye during the summer, are great places to base yourself to enjoy all that this special part of Scotland has to offer.