Going Behind the Wheel to Explore Scotland

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Judy Koutsky, associate editor of Travel Weekly Crossroads, tested her skills behind the wheel during a recent trip to Scotland. Her report follows:

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- As a New Yorker, my mode of transportation is either a crazily driven, car-dodging cab or the subway -- where you only have to remember an A or a C designation, not actual directions.

My sister, Joannie, is a Bostonian who sold her car years ago. So, with more knowledge of rapid transit than automobiles, we were relieved to discover that renting a car in Scotland is both effortless and rewarding.

Driving on the left side of the road becomes second nature after a few hours (although every now and then we turned into oncoming traffic by moving to the right side of the road out of habit). And the freedom of not having to stick to train and bus schedules, along with the option of going off the beaten path whenever the mood moved us, more than made up for a few close calls.

Although asking for directions never posed a problem -- people were very willing to help tourists -- our hosts usually underestimated traveling time. We were charmed by the Scots' unyielding belief that "you can't miss it." Sure you can.

We learned quickly to add 30 minutes to all excursions and to reiterate all lefts and rights to make sure we wouldn't go wrong.

First Stop, Edinburgh
Scotland's capital city is an hour's drive from Glasgow, where we arrived by plane. We were warned by the tourist office that it is a difficult city to navigate by car -- advice that should be noted.

Narrow, twisting one-way streets make turning around after missing a stop challenging and it is almost impossible to enjoy the sights when trying to dodge pedestrians. Travelers are advised to park as soon as possible and enjoy this beautiful city on foot.

After ridding ourselves of wheels at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza (see sidebar below), we enjoyed roaming the Royal Mile, shopping along Princes Street and stopping at the touristy Deacon Brody's pub for the requisite haggis, nips and a pint.

Setting Off for Stirling
Emboldened with maps on which our friendly concierge highlighted our route, we were off to Stirling (allow 90 minutes, give or take depending on traffic). The roads outside the country's large cities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness) are easy to navigate and the signage adequate, albeit little time is afforded between the sign noting the exit and the exit itself. If nothing else, this trip honed our reflexes -- "turn now!"

We soon learned that the much-dreaded roundabout was actually one of the best inventions in the sphere of transportation. Miss your stop? Don't fret, just swing around again.

In Stirling, one must visit Stirling Castle and National Wallace Monument, where there are incredible views of the countryside. I strongly recommend climbing all 246 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument and reading the history of the famed warrior instead of relying on actor Mel Gibson's version.

We then drove 30 minutes up to the Trossachs, a hiker's paradise where the Lowlands and Highlands meet amid heather, lochs and the woods.

This is Rob Roy country, where the famed outlaw became a Scottish folk hero. Today visitors can walk, cycle and go on pony treks through this rugged terrain punctuated by mountains, streams and glens.

On the Road to Skye
After returning to Glasgow for a few days, we headed up to the Isle of Skye.

Our Glaswegian cab driver laughed when he heard where we were headed. "It's winding roads for hours on end," he warned. Little did he know that we were greatly enjoying our car adventure and no challenge was too big for us.

Three hours later, we were taking curves at 60 mph (the locals take them at 80 mph) on the two-lane road. Although the road outside Glasgow starts with four lanes, it narrows the farther north you travel, winding up with a single lane for each direction of traffic. Passing proved interesting.

The picturesque scenery and narrow roads don't make for a good mix, and it is advisable to have at least two drivers so each passenger gets some sightseeing time. A good half-way mark from Glasgow to Skye is Fort William, a sleepy town on the water with some fun restaurants and pubs, which we spent the evening sampling.

Many pints later we were good and lost in complete darkness when two teen-age girls found us and happily walked us to the doorstep of the Ellison's B & B in exchange for tales about America.

Entering Another World
The following morning, we drove a few hours north to the Isle of Skye, which can be reached by car via bridge or ferry.

Although the island is five minutes from the mainland, once we stepped ashore, civilization as we knew it was left behind. Here among 350 miles of dramatic coastline and breathtaking cliffs, visitors will find that half the population speaks Gaelic and its cultural influence is palpable -- from the bilingual signs posted everywhere to the architecture of the shops.

Driving on Skye presented new challenges. Streams and waterfalls suddenly come into view causing many visitors to pull over for a photo opportunity. Some made it a point to stand in the center of the road, so drivers should beware when rounding a bend.

Most roads are single track with the sheep having little sense of right-of-way (like the chicken, sheep cross the road for their own reasons). Drivers also must be mindful of the cyclists and backpackers sharing the narrow, winding roads.

Although most of the island is covered by woodlands, Sleat, which sits at the southernmost tip of Skye, is the exception. We found ourselves wondering if the Hotel Eilean Iarmain -- which came strongly recommended -- was worth the 15-mile drive on a single road shared by both directions of traffic.

But what a find.

Once at the tip of the isle, right on the water with only sheep as our neighbors, we realized this was what people were talking about when they referred to the "Scotland Experience."

Skye's environs epitomize Scottish scenery, and Sleat is known as the "Garden of Skye." We hiked alongside the sheep that night before the rain came. It rained a bit every day, but we didn't mind; it added to the aura of the region.

Clients should plan to stay at least a couple days in Skye (possibly a night in the north and a night in the south); they will long remember the visit. For details on traveling in Scotland, call the British Tourist Authority at (800) GO 2 BRITAIN or visit the Scottish Tourist Board's Web site at http: //www.holiday.scotland.net.

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Discovering Scotland's Properties
GLASGOW, Scotland -- One of the most appealing aspects of touring Scotland is the varied choice in accommodations. Clients can stay in bed-and- breakfasts, standard tourist hotels or fantastical castles.

A rundown of the properties visited on my recent driving trip follows:

* The Culduthel Lodge in Inverness is a Georgian bed and breakfast that overlooks the River Ness and is a 10-minute walk from the city center. The suites are spacious and each includes a television and radio/CD player. Guests are welcomed with fresh flowers, fruit and a decanter of sherry in their rooms. Nightly rates, including breakfasts, start at about $64 per person, double. For reservations, call (011) 44-146 324-0089; fax (011) 44- 146 324-0089.

* The Hotel Eilean Iarmain, Sleat, Isle of Skye, is an off-the-beaten-path establishment with a Gaelic flavor that is unforgettable. The 12-room property is located on the southernmost tip of Skye, and the accommodations are cozy, yet roomy. The staff is friendly and the food delicious. Nightly rates start at about $68 per person, double, including breakfasts. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (011) 44-147 183-3332; fax (011) 44-147 833-275

* Situated across from a city park and uphill from the center of town is the nine-room Park Lodge Hotel in Stirling. Known as one of the most stylish hotels around, the staff is friendly, but the rooms are small (especially for two). Nightly rates start at $136, including breakfasts. For reservations, call (011) 44-178 647-4862; fax (011) 44- 178 644-9748.

* The 14th century Airth Castle Hotel in Stirling offers a nice combination of old and new -- a tranquil gothic fortress, situated on 12 acres of woodland, with modern amenities. The 75 rooms are warmly decorated, and the leisure center is one of the best in the region, with a Jacuzzi, an indoor heated pool, a steam room, sauna and sun beds. Agents should make sure to book their clients' reservations at the castle, not the country club across the way. The country club is perfectly fine, but it's not a castle. Nightly rates at the castle start at about $289, double, including breakfasts. To book, call (011) 44-132 483-1411; fax (011) 44-132 483-1419. The property also can be booked through Radisson at (800) 777-7800.

* The 238-room Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in Edinburgh is ideally situated in the center of the Royal Mile. Although the exterior architecture resembling a medieval castle is inviting, the rooms are dark and the furniture a bit dated. Rates start at around $170 per night. To book, call (800) HOLIDAY or (011) 44-131 557-9797; fax (011) 44-131 557-9789.

* Jean & Iain Ellison's B&B in Fort William is named after its friendly proprietors. There is only one room (double) available, but clients have use of a sitting room and a private bath. The nightly rate is about $54. Call (011) 44-139 770-3357. -- JK

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