A new joined-up hiking and cycling trail that, if you completed it all, would allow you to circumvent the entirety of Loch Ness, makes enjoying Scotland’s most famous body of water more accessible than ever. Here’s how to make the most of a visit if you’ve only got a weekend to spare.
Heading to the trail’s starting (and finishing) point in Inverness is the easiest option, transport-wise. To make the most of your time, reduce your carbon footprint and start your trip in style, consider catching the newly refurbished Caledonian Sleeper train – that way you can set off on Friday night and return on Sunday evening, having enjoyed a full weekend.
Onboard, you’ll find a swish Club Car where you can opt to grab dinner or drinks, plus cute, cosy rooms complete with sleep kits (and some come with an ensuite toilet and shower facilities). The nightly service sets out from London Euston in the evening and arrives into Inverness at 8.42am.
Reclining seats start from £53pp return (London-Inverness), while standard rooms with bunk beds start from £130pp return (based on two sharing). It may seem pricey, but just remember: it saves the money you’d have to spend on staying overnight somewhere, and £65 for a night in a travelling hotel isn’t too bad a deal.
Alternatively, easyJet flies from London to Inverness from £37 return.
Inverness may not feel like the end of the line, but an hour’s walk from there into the untouched wilderness of the Highlands sure does. We set off from the UK’s most northerly city while the sun was still low in the sky, while Saturday morning dogwalkers and joggers were the only ones to nod a friendly “hello!” to as we strolled along the banks of the River Ness. Ninety minutes later, we were looking back on Inverness from on high as we headed over the hills and far away.
The first section of the newly launched Loch Ness 360 from Inverness to the village of Drumnadrochit, all of it on well-maintained, wonderfully well-signed footpaths (follow signs for the Great Glen Way), is 20 miles long – an ambitious distance that takes most of the day (eight hours, in our case). The trail itself is so vast that even the Loch it revolves around is hidden from view for much of the first five hours of walking. Instead, hikers are treated to uncompromising landscapes, wild and untamed, with tussocks of brown and green peppered with rich purple thistles. There is nowhere quite like the Highlands, as much for the silence as for the distinctive scenery. You walk, and walk and walk without seeing a soul for hours at a time.
There are also no facilities for the majority of the route, so go prepared. Water, snacks, layers, headtorches (in case it gets dark before you finish) and fully charged phones are essential. As are tissues – there are no toilets, which means al fresco weeing is par for the course. The good news? There is one unexpected (and incredibly welcome) pitstop about three quarters of the way through the route, at the Eco-campsite and Café. There you’ll find outdoor picnic tables in a woodland clearing; sit down and let the owner bring you out hot chocolate and cake from his kitchen. Top tip: make sure you have cash on you, as he holds no truck with debit cards.
When you finally reach Drumnadrochit, don’t expect a vibrant metropolis – when we visited off-season, most things were closed when we arrived at 6pm, although the OYO Loch Ness Drumnadrochit Hotel had a café-bar that was still open (it had no other customers but a reassuringly large whisky collection). If visiting in the livelier summer season, check out the Fiddlers Highland, the village’s main pub and restaurant.
Don’t worry, no one’s expecting you to walk back to Inverness; there are a number of buses you can catch from in front of the post office (17, 119, 917 or 919), with journeys taking 30 minutes and fares costing £3-£5. Just be aware, they run pretty infrequently, so check the timetable beforehand to plan your journey back.
Ness Walk is a newly opened five-star that constitutes Inverness’s most swish place to bed down for the night. Its plum position next to the sparkling River Ness is an easy distance from the city centre and a good jumping off point for the Loch Ness 360. Inside, you’ll find a sophisticated, muted colour palette and luxe furnishings that steer clear of the clichéd all-tartan décor that some hotels are all-too-quick to fall prey to. Think blue-grey walls, brown leather headboards and armchairs, and bold splashes of colour in the original artwork that’s thoughtfully hung about the place.
In addition to the extensive breakfast buffet and hot dishes made to order, the hotel also has a slick bar and a restaurant serving up first-class dishes of an evening. The scallops with black pudding were a particular highlight. Doubles from £125, room only.
For a hefty plate of Scottish fare with a side of live music, MacGregor’s Bar in Inverness boasts the accolade of having been previously crowned the Best Bar in Scotland and the Best Live Music Bar in Scotland at the Visit Scotland Thistle Awards and Scottish Licence Trade Awards respectively.
The ambience is the perfect blend of cosy and vibrant, with a scorching fire and wooden tables crowded in for lively, rowdy punters, some of whom are ready to get up and dance at a moment’s notice. Scottish classics with a nod to modernity adorn the menu – for instance, the sublime haggis, neeps and tattie pie, topped with Orkney cheddar, can also be ordered with veggie haggis.
When it comes to entertainment, don’t be surprised if Bruce MacGregor, the bar’s owner, hops up to take the floor armed with his violin – he’s part of the legendary Blazin Fiddles, one of the best Highland fiddle bands in the world.
Obviously you should be drinking whisky: you’re in Scotland, after all. For a high-class dram in surroundings reminiscent of a gentleman’s club, roll on over to The Malt Room in Inverness. Tucked into a discreet back alley, it’s a bijou space with flattering lighting and low-slung couches. The insanely extensive whisky menu is helpfully divided into modest, memorable and magnificent to indicate the price bracket. For those not so keen on the amber nectar, there’s also a decent range of cocktails, including a “smokey amaretto sour” and the “I don’t like whisky” – Nikka from the Barrel, grapefruit, lemon and cane syrup.
Sticking with the whisky theme, picking up a bottle is the best souvenir to relive your Highlands experience back home. It may sound odd, but one of the city’s best whisky shops is actually in a local taxi rank – Inverness Taxis. They have the most impressive range we saw all weekend, and at decent prices.