Driving through Scotland in an Aston Martin
I had secretly hoped for a convertible, but on a dark morning in Scotland in the last week of October, it didn’t take much to persuade me otherwise. For the next four days I’d be driving a sparkling new Aston Martin Rapide S, US$200,000 (Dh735,000) worth of class, power and style. And it’s waiting for me as our group pulls into the gravelly drive of Dalmeny House, a fittingly aristocratic start to an Aston Martin tour of Scottish castles, by high-end tour operator Elegant Resorts.
It’s a big car – a five-metre long, five-door hatchback – and I wonder how it will fare on rural Scotland’s narrow and often wet roads. But that, like everything else on this “Elegant Journey”, is not my problem. Because everything, from the route we take to the rooms we stay in, the meals we eat and the activities we take part in, have all been meticulously planned and rehearsed. This is the kind of trip that billionaire Americans fly in and out for – wanting the very best, but not having a minute to waste.
As it turns out, there are two such people on our trip, whom we meet the night before at a private candlelit dinner in the Annan Suite of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, a grand hulk of a Victorian railway hotel which is the greatest five-star property in the city. With views of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat, and between the Old and New Towns, there’s no better base. The two Americans are Randy, a property developer accompanied by his wife, Kim, and Frank, co-founder of a large consultancy, and his wife, Leasa. Altogether our group numbers 14, including several support staff from Elegant Resorts and Aston Martin. We get to know each other over a menu of treacle-cured Scottish salmon, Blairgowrie beef and a house-made cranachan dessert. Early the next morning, after a huge buffet breakfast, we set off in a minibus to where the cars are waiting.
Dalmeny House, an atmospheric Tudor Gothic stately home set on 30,000 acres of land on the banks of the Firth of Forth, is home to the 7th Earl and Countess of Rosebery, who are both in their 80s. Uniformed female staff greet us and offer hot drinks and biscuits in the drawing room, while Lady Rosebery is also present with her black cat and clipped, characterful conversation. The room is filled with antique French furniture, wall tapestries and historic books – just part of a huge collection from Mentmore, a Buckinghamshire home built for the English branch of the Rothschild family. Back in 1878, the daughter of Baron Mayer de Rothschild married the 5th Earl of Rosebery, making Dalmeny’s owners part of the powerful transatlantic banking dynasty, as well as one of Scotland’s notable clans.
Soon, it’s time to move on – to the seat of another clan, Inveraray Castle on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll. There are a variety of different cars on offer, including one of the very first Aston Martin DB11s, but all have been pre-assigned to prevent any arguments. Since Frank has already ordered a DB11, but is waiting to receive it, he and Leasa take off in that. It looks nippier and more agile than the Rapide, but I can’t complain, and Andy Curtis, a high-performance driving coach and test driver who has worked as a stunt driver on several James Bond films, promises to take me for a drive in it later. Better looking than most previous Bond stars, I can’t help but wonder if Andy hasn’t missed an even greater role in these films.
Like all Aston Martins, the interior of the Rapide S feels luxurious and expensive, which it is, hand-finished by specialist craftsmen in fine leather, with beautifully comfortable, fully adjustable and heated seats, and a push-button ignition that roars satisfyingly after you push in the cigarette-lighter-style device, which glows with a pair of Aston Martin wings from within a piece of clear crystal glass. I tell Andy I feel like I need a lesson before being entrusted with such a machine, but he is softly matter of fact. “Try to be at one with the car,” he says. “Keep your inputs smooth and measured, and you’ll get to feel what it’s doing. The engine is monitoring the sensitivity of your input. It will cosset you at a slower speeds, so unless you switch to sports mode, it’s more of a grand tourer.”
So in other words, as long as I don’t drive like a lunatic, I’ll be safe. All our luggage has been taken on ahead, so we don’t even need to load the cars before setting off west along the M9, the only piece of motorway we’ll see all week. The satnav has been programmed, but I find it easier to follow the detailed directions in our printed road books, which have distance markers to keep things exact, and, as a last resort or simply for context, a full Ordnance Survey map of Scotland. It’s a thrilling experience, and, since I have the car on auto mode, Andy’s advice is easy to follow and the car is a pleasure to drive. About two hours and 110 kilometres later, we’ve all arrived safely at Inveraray Castle for lunch. My car’s low body and wing-like doors don’t make getting out very elegant, but we’re all too busy admiring the fairy-tale French-style castle, which was completed in 1789 and featured in Downton Abbey.
Inside, we’re greeted by the present incumbent, the 40-something, kilt-clad Torquhil Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, who lives here with his family and is the “clan chief” of about 13 million Campbells worldwide. After a brief reception, he takes us to lunch in the impeccably preserved state dining room, where he tells us more about the house and what his life is like, and answers any questions. Though immediately surrounded by beautiful flowering gardens, the property boasts a total of 70,000 acres including ancient native woodland. The duke’s love of outdoor exercise is shown in his healthy complexion, trim figure and enthusiasm for fresh produce. Over pumpkin soup with toasted seeds and sourdough bread, a deliciously light main course of hake, cockle, shrimp, cabbage and potato, and a dessert of blackcurrant sorbet, chestnut frangipane and pickled quince, we each feel that we’ve shared a unique event.
After a guided tour of the castle, it’s time to get going; there’s just a few hours before sunset, when we are due to arrive at the Skyfall filming location in Glencoe, and see the Highland landscape at its most dramatic. “Just follow the satnav, it’s all programmed,” says the Aston Martin team, yet this turns out to be a mistake. Instead of taking a sharp right after exiting the castle, I continue along the shores of Loch Fyne, in completely the wrong direction, for about an hour. I hadn’t been able to reset the distance counter to 0, meaning that the written directions were much harder to follow, and the scenic route before me seemed to make sense. The trouble with Scotland is that most routes are scenic, and I’m not the only one to take a wrong turn. We’d have been much better doing this part of the trip in convoy, as by the time I realise my mistake, I have to retrace my steps and it’s a race against time to reach Glencoe before – literally – skyfall. Alas, the delay means it’s too dark to see much when I reach the trip’s climax, and I arrive at Inverlochy Castle fuming.
Fortunately, I realise that if I get up early enough the next morning, I can retrace my steps before carrying on north-west to the Isle of Skye. Inverlochy Castle is just outside the town of Fort William, but feels much more rural and, on clear days, has a view of Ben Nevis. Dating from 1863, the hotel has just 17 rooms; mine is on the second floor and features high ceilings, a huge four-poster bed and views onto mountain moorland. Downstairs, the Albert & Michel Roux Jr restaurant is elegant and sophisticated, and our tasting menu includes crab and avocado salad, game consommé, poached Shetland turbot, local lamb, a selection of British and French cheeses, and caramelised rice pudding with poached plums.
Over dinner, Andy entertains us with behind-the-scenes stories about the filming of Tomorrow Never Dies and, more recently, Skyfall and Spectre. Daniel Craig, for example, “isn’t a natural driver; he does his bit and lets the stunt guys do their stuff”. In Andy’s case, this involved stripping out an Aston Martin DB10 to make it look like someone else was driving, while the moving car was, in fact, being controlled from a steel cage on the roof. “It can take a week to get a few seconds of footage,” he adds. Andy has also worked as a racing instructor for other brands, including Porsche, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, and has travelled to circuits all over the world, including Abu Dhabi. Yet, he says, Aston Martin, which makes just 3,500 cars a year, is “the world’s coolest brand” and that even celebrities aren’t allowed to jump the queue when it comes to orders. “Geri Halliwell had to wait six to nine months. Footballers and celebrities come on our driving courses, but they are offered to all our customers.”
After a decadent breakfast, I pack up my bag and set out back to Glencoe (another benefit of this trip is that baggage is collected from one’s room, and there is no need to check in and check out at each place). In just over half an hour, I’m delighting in the immense Highland landscape of mountains and moorland – the slopes burnished a deep orange – wild, raging streams and thick, swirling fog. The car grips the winding roads well at speed, though I have to keep stopping to take pictures. Thankfully, although this is a popular spot, the views are mostly protected and unpolluted. No visitor to Scotland needs to worry about the weather, because landscapes such as these actually look better in clouds and fog than under clear blue skies.
Satisfied, I turn around and head north-west to Skye, the rain driving down. We stop at the gorgeous 13th-century Eilean Donan Castle before heading over the 500-metre-long Skye Bridge and then down to Kinloch Lodge in Sleat, a former hunting lodge where comfortable rooms and dinner at its Michelin-starred restaurant is waiting. Our group has the property to ourselves, so we feel like a group of wealthy friends on holiday. Dinner at the small, surprisingly formal restaurant is courtesy of chef Marcello Tully, who is half Scottish and half Brazilian, and features spicy pea soup with home-baked bread and artfully presented butter, scallops, venison, seabass and vanilla crème fraiche panna cotta, followed by tea and petits fours served in the sitting room.
After so much eating and driving, the next morning several of our group go on a guided walk with the appropriately named Mitchell Partridge, a local “ghillie”, an outdoorsman who traditionally attended individuals or groups on hunting and fishing expeditions. Accompanied by his dog, named Breac, Mitchell comes from a long line of gamekeepers, though his current employment also extends to school groups, outdoor education, and guiding and assisting survival courses with celebrities including Ray Mears. We set off from the lodge on a track up and around a nearby headland, which gives us great views across the water of the Knoydart Peninsula, often referred to as Britain’s last wilderness. It’s magnificent, clean and hauntingly empty. Mitchell talks about the current trend for local foraged food, saying that before our current modern diets, people survived on roots, berries and nuts for hundreds of thousands of years. He points out wood sorrel, apple lemon, chervil, rowan, bog myrtle, and wild garlic and nettles to illustrate his point. By contrast, a witches brew could be made of the poisonous ragwort, devil’s scabious and hemlock. Through binoculars, we spot birds, and reflect on the history and geography of the area, and the evils of modern lifestyles.
Back at the lodge, the other half of our group has taken a cooking course with Marcello Tully, and presents us with a delicious parsnip soup and salmon salad. Then it’s time to set off again for a 94km drive to Aldourie Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness near Inverness. The route along exceptionally beautiful A and B roads, which take us through mountain passes, small villages and almost the entire eastern flank of Loch Ness, is quite straightforward to follow, and pleasantly time-consuming, although there are a few straight stretches where I can’t resist putting my foot on the pedal. We arrive at our final stop just as the sun is setting.
Aldourie Castle, which dates from the 17th century, is not a hotel, but a 500-acre private estate only available for group bookings. Its present facade has an almost playful, Disneyfied look, while the interior has been painstakingly restored and features wood panelling, antique furniture and flagstone flooring. The house manager, Lavinia, has the pleasant air of an intellectual matron, while tweed-clad Hugo is always on hand but never intrusive. Every detail here is a delight, and, with two nights here, this is my favourite stop. Dinner on the first night involves crab cakes, herb-crusted lamb loin and marmalade pudding; on the second it’s fresh grilled lobster and beef sirloin with mushrooms and polenta.
After a good night’s sleep, our last day kicks off with an optional 83km leisure drive through pretty autumnal landscapes to the west, followed by lunch and a boat cruise on the surprisingly wild Loch Ness, plus an archery and falconry session. That evening, we all wear traditional Scottish dress for a grand reception complete with bagpipes and crackling fires. The following morning there’s just time for breakfast, a walk in the grounds and a spin along the roads around the estate in the DB11. Of course, it feels completely different to the Rapide – it’s smaller, lower and, with a 5.2L V12 engine, a more agile concentration of power. Engine snarling, the car seems to grip the road the faster we go and the more turns we make. The crazy ease with which Andy can take the car from a normal drive to a perception-splitting rollercoaster ride is exhilarating, but it’s over too soon. I end the trip wishing I could drive to the far north of Scotland in it, but maybe that’s the idea. In reality, the cars are loaded into trailers for their next destination, and we are dropped off at Inverness for a train ride back to Edinburgh.
Fortunately there’s a final night at the Balmoral Hotel, and we’re met on the platform by its extremely tall, tartan-kilt-clad doormen. We make the most of the hotel’s lovely basement swimming pool and spa – Scottish therapist Nicola soothes my drive-worn shoulders with a massage – and then it’s time for dinner at the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant. Smoked salmon is served in a cloud of actual woodsmoke; trolleys arrive laden with breads and cheeses. Stepping outside into the fantastical Old Town, reality still seems to be somewhere else.
Updated: March 27, 2017 04:00 AM