Once upon a time, late last spring, my husband and I crossed a rattly-sounding, wooden-slatted bridge and drove through an organic tunnel of greenery to arrive on a private Scottish island of peaceful enchantment. The air was fragrant and felt rich with nourishment. The sea and land seemed to kiss gently. The travails of travel slipped away with the tides. We are "here now."
We had arrived on the Isle of Eriska, where one family, for more than forty years, has developed a "Hotel, Spa, and Island" as a sanctuary for relaxing retreats and celebration. Scottish people go there for special occasions or as annual traditions to rejuvenate. Dame Judy Dench reportedly enjoyed watching the playful otters. Now, more North Americans are discovering it as a destination, or bucolic companion, to a visit to Edinburgh (about a three-hour drive away) or Inverness (a little under three hours away).
The owner-host Beppo Buchanan-Smith had a twinkle in his eyes, as if he enjoyed seeing people fall under the spell. He grew up on the island that his parents bought in 1974, and he knows its charms and challenges. Although members of the Harry Potter cast stayed there for many days during a nearby film shoot, the island's magic does not seem to come from any wands that were left behind. Beppo's parents, and now he and his wife, put a lot of heart and sweat into the human aspects, and let the nature flourish its own wizardry.
Flowers, birds and the wind seemed to dance with the trees, suggesting an Eden-like setting even as the sensual delights of Eriska aim to offer Scotland's best— from the delectable creativity, local ingredients and outstanding chef of its Michelin-starred restaurant, to the customized Scottish seaweed treatments in its restorative spa.
The island's 300 acres offer vistas of wilderness and human landscaping, and aromatherapy you can walk, golf, or croquet through. Garden paths lead to a striking indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, greenhouses, beaches, and the newer Villa Suites with private courtyards and Jacuzzis.
The gathering nexus is a 19th century "Grand House," with both deluxe and standard rooms upstairs for guests. Downstairs, the dining rooms, piano with classical sheet music, lit fireplace, library conservatory, and bar suggest the comforts of the well-to-do of a previous century, but with a more informal and relaxing atmosphere.
Eriska was the welcoming peaceful prelude to our next movement — a beautiful glissando barge trip on the Scottish Highlander.
After gliding from loch to locks to lox, and from castles to culinary feasts through the Caledonian Canal on our European Waterways voyage (chronicled in last week's Pique travel story, March 17), we boarded ScotRail for a scenic ride to the pulsing city of Edinburgh — the concluding crescendo in our Scottish symphony, with vibrant percussion and horns of artful humanity.
The capital of Scotland shares the youth and exploratory energy of four universities, including the prestigious University of Edinburgh (founded in 1582). Edinburgh also has the international "having-fun-on-vacation" mix of more than four million visitors a year in a city of fewer than 500,000 people (some of whom wear kilts for themselves, not to please the tourists).
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, of the 16th century Stuarts, offers tours when the Queen is not in residence. The Royal Mile's colourful density combines past history and architecture with modern people-watching buzz. A walk can fill a day or more with exploration, from the intriguing side streets and underground of the 17th and 18th century "closes," to the "Stone of Destiny" coronation rock now in the Edinburgh Castle.
The imposing fortress perches dramatically on the remnants of an extinct volcano, but the city below provides an energy that is nearly explosive with expectation, as it hosts such events as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of Art, the world's largest.
Our home base was the Nira Caledonia, Edinburgh's boutique contribution to the "Small Luxury Hotels of the World" collection of high-end hotels. This Georgian gem offers a quieter oasis amongst cobblestone streets in Edinburgh's "New Town" (only a couple of hundred years old), not far from the shopping lures of trendy Princes Street. I particularly enjoyed reading about the hotel's legacy while indulging in our suite's Jacuzzi bath.
One of the hotel's two buildings was once the elegant den of a Scottish literary lion, home of John Wilson, a.k.a. Christopher North (his pen name for the Blackwood's Magazine). He was a friend of Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. In a memoir about him, North's sister Mary summarized that he was "endowed with that best gift: a heart that never grew old."
We, too, felt young at heart as we walked around Edinburgh (although our older legs didn't respond as youthfully to all the hills). Packing for home, my heart was also very grateful — for Eriska, for so many memories of the Scottish Highlands barge trip, the beauty through the train windows, and now for the people and sites of Edinburgh and the Nira Caledonia, too. I hope Scotland is not just "once upon a time," but that there are still other trips and tales waiting for us. Encore!
For more on Sonne's books including My Adventures: A Traveler's Journal, and The Happiness Handbook, see www.LisaSonne.com. For your own happy barging adventure, check out European Waterways: www.GoBarging.com.