Vacation Like a Royal

Britain’s ruling family shares its Scottish estate as a Highlands retreat
lifestyle, travel, history, culture, outdoors, nature
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Terry Duthu

Ringed by the green boughs of stately old conifers, simple wooden picnic benches dot a grassy clearing. Spread among the tables are couples from Germany, the United States and China; a family from Malaysia; and a group from Spain. The low murmur of their conversations is accompanied by the soft rush of the River Dee as it curves along a near bank.

Through the trees, not more than 50 yards away, is the attraction that draws nearly 70,000 visitors annually. Since 1852, Scotland’s Balmoral Castle has been the holiday retreat of Great Britain’s royal family, who are in residence from August through October. From April until July, Balmoral is open to tourists. Some may come only for a day visit and a walk around the castle grounds; others, often waiting as long as 18 months, rent one of the estate cottages, which provide guests the same tranquil, unspoiled Highlands experience that first attracted the royal family more than 160 years ago.

First-time visitors may go more from curiosity than appreciation, but they soon understand the beauty that proved so alluring to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

“It was so calm and so solitary, it did one good as one gazed around; and the pure mountain air was most refreshing. All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils,” the queen wrote.

Balmoral has been the backdrop for key moments in the life of the Windsors. Princess Diana was first spotted with Prince Charles there, and their first honeymoon interview was given on the banks of the Dee. Sixteen years later, Queen Elizabeth kept Princes William and Harry at Balmoral in the first days after their mother’s death. Last September, the family gathered at Balmoral to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II overtaking Victoria, her great-great-grandmother, as longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Rugged Terrain

Balmoral lies about 500 miles north of London and 50 miles west of the coastal town of Aberdeen. Through several purchases of adjoining properties over the years, the estate now encompasses more than 50,000 acres, all lying within the Cairngorms National Park.

Even before one nears the castle grounds, there is a peacefulness that blankets the steep hillsides and panoramic valleys of the Highlands. Cellphone coverage and Internet service are spotty at best, even in the small towns nearby. But it is more than a lack of technology or billboard-free highways that creates such quietude. Step even a few paces from a country road and hear only the sound of the wind buffeting over the vast expanses of craggy hills. In spring and summer, blankets of purple saxifrage mingle among granite boulders. Beautiful yes, but also a place that demands self-reliance and sense of purpose.

For Victoria and Albert, Balmoral allowed them to live simply—to fish for Atlantic salmon in the River Dee, to stalk red deer and grouse and to ride horses—often while staying in small hunting cottages. Those activities, as well as luxury Land Rover tours and guided nature walks, are available for modern visitors.

“I seldom walk less than four hours a day,” the queen wrote, “and when I come in I feel as if I want to go out again.”

That same love of the outdoors has been shared by more recent royals, including Queen Mother Elizabeth, who, even into her 80s, was often spotted by locals as she donned waders and fished for salmon.

Nearer God's Heart

The fresh, crisp scent of evergreen envelops visitors as they walk from the entrance gates to the forested dirt paths toward the castle, until, finally, the eyes are rewarded too with glimpses of granite through the trees.

The main living areas of the castle were finished in 1855; the walls hewed from a near-white granite from local quarries. Only the ballroom, separate from the main rooms, is open to tourists, but artwork and other mementos are moved into the hall as exhibits during peak visitor seasons. Visitors are allowed to walk up to massive wooden entry doors and peer around corners to see secluded garden spots. There are sometimes reminders that the castle is still a home. As one visitor raised a camera toward a second-story window, a curtain snapped abruptly shut.

It’s easy to spend hours walking the castle grounds, strolling through nearly three acres of well-tended vegetable and herb gardens and stepping into greenhouses bursting with colorful flowering plants. An inscription over the entry to a conservatory rebuilt for Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee indicates an even higher power is honored by the surroundings: “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

It’s easy to spend hours walking the castle grounds, strolling through nearly three acres of well-tended vegetable and herb gardens and stepping into greenhouses bursting with colorful flowering plants.

Away from it All

Acres by the tens of thousands are better enjoyed at a leisurely pace, and that’s the opportunity Balmoral’s vacation cottages afford. Some are only minutes from the castle, others nearly an hour. Though on a royal estate, the cottages cater to Highlands utility, not overstated luxury. Think mud-spattered Wellingtons and open fires, not seaweed spa wraps and concierge service.

Alltnaguibhsaich (pronounced All-na-juice-ick) Lodge, situated along Loch Muick, provides some of the most breathtaking views in the area and can accommodate 12 guests. Other cottages provide multiple guest rooms, making them ideal locales for family getaways or fishing and hunting parties. Deer and grouse are the typical prey on land; in the River Dee, it’s salmon, grayling and brown trout.

Just as it did for Queen Victoria, the land offers hilly trails to hike for hours. Today, though, several of the more established routes convey the passage of the years and the joys and sorrows of those who ruled from and worked on the estate. More than a dozen monuments and cairns, memorials made of stacked stones, are dotted throughout the property to honor royals, trusted servants and loyal old dogs—tributes to the past surrounded by ancient lands and forests, all being faithfully kept for future monarchs and their guests.

Balmoral is approximately 50 miles from Aberdeen International Airport (ICAO: EGPD).

Other Noble Stays

Sovereigns Cottages, Osborne House, Isle of Wight

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also adored this seaside retreat. Two cottages are available for rental and provide access to the Osborne House grounds and a private beach.

London Lodge, Highclere

Television viewers will recognize castle Highclere as the setting for “Downton Abbey.” The London Lodge, near the property’s formal entry, was built in 1793 to celebrate the first Earl of Carnarvon’s entry into the peerage. The lodge is available for rent from March-September.

Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Sudeley Castle is the only private castle in England to have a queen buried within its grounds. Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, is entombed at Sudeley’s 15th-century church. Cottages are located on the edge of the estate, midway between the castle and the historic town of Winchcombe.



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