Scotland

Scotland
"Glenlivet it has castles three,/ Drumin, Blairfindy and Deskie,/ And also one distillery,/More famous than the castles three!" It's not Glenlivet we're visiting on our Edelweiss Royal Tour of Scotland, but tiny Cardhu in the village of Knockando on the River Spey. The tour buses have disgorged at the famous Glenlivet, just down the road, while Emma, our kilted guide, takes our small party around Cardhu's nineteenth-century distillery.

Crime doesn't pay, goes the adage. But moonshiners have successfully evaded the excise man over the centuries, often building thriving and eventually legal businesses. When whisky smuggler John Cumming started distilling at Knockando in 1811, his wife synchronized her cooking with the operation of the still to disguise the telltale smoke. In 1872, Elizabeth Cumming took over the 50-year-old family "enterprise," and such became the reputation of The Cardhu that one John ("Johnnie") Walker of Glasgow came calling and bought the business. Cardhu remains a "single malt" distiller, in which only malted barley is used for fermentation, and the spirit is never "married" to other malts.

As we walk between the vast, conical, copper stills, Emma tells us that Cardhu's unique flavor comes from two distillations and the liquor's storage for 12 years in American oak barrels The casks may be used up to five times, so many here are over 60 years old. She also says that when tasting malt whisky, it's important to add a bit of water to bring out the smooth, smoky taste, "but never ice!"

In and Out of the Trossachs

Six days earlier, our small party  -  Doug and John, a nephew and uncle from Florida, Nick and Susan from New Jersey, me, Michael our tour guide, and the support vehicle driver Claude  -  had assembled at the stately Norton House hotel just outside Edinburgh. Edelweiss's seven-day Royal Tour offers access to many of Scotland's most interesting sights, and though the nightly destinations are fixed, we soon discover that the route outlined in the roadbook is just a suggestion. Having guided this tour a number of times, Michael has some great off-the-grid roads in mind for us if we're game  -  and, of course, we are!

We depart the next morning in a downpour, but fortunately I'm wearing an outfit that's perfectly waterproof. Once Michael leads us through the suburban sprawl along the north bank of the Forth River, a mighty stone fortress appears out of the gloom, towering over the valley below. Besieged at least eight times, Stirling Castle fell under English and Scottish control at various times, as the fortunes of the "auld enemy" (the English) waxed and waned. The last siege was waged by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, before the Jacobites' final rout at Culloden. The fifteenth-century castle looks like a work-in-progress, with wings, halls, fortifications, and outbuildings added on over the centuries in a mishmash of styles.

Leaving the 'burbs behind, we ride into a characteristic Scottish landscape of huge rolling hills which eerily loom like green steamships in fog-shrouded seas. We follow Loch Long to Arrochar before turning west toward Inverary and clearing weather. Under brightening skies the emerald hills soften, looking more like carded tufts of cashmere than dreadnoughts now. Inverary, a neat, charming fishing town, has a coffee shop and maritime museum in a converted yacht. But it's closed.

Michael's next detour takes us through Glen Orchy on a narrow, single-track road alongside a rushing stream with a couple of lively waterfalls. In North America, a tiny road like this would be dirt at best, but here even the skimpiest thoroughfare is paved. We rejoin the A82 through Glen Coe, a broad valley flanked by soaring hills. The heights are obscured today in mist and clouds. Nearby, Ballachulish sits on tranquil Loch Leven, a long, narrow inlet that winds into the hills.

Staying two nights here to give us more time to tour the western lowlands, we wander Loch Leven's rambling shoreline the next day. Mist and drizzle still cloak the hills, but riding the winding, undulating two-lane roads is delightful fun. Michael then takes us back through Glen Coe on a captivating ride along Glen Etive. We're riding a narrow, gravel-strewn track following a bounding stream to a tranquil lake; and aside from a scattering of ragged sheep, the glen seems to be wrapped in motionless calm until a deer leaps across the road in front of me! So later, when preparing to lunch at the Bridge of Orchy hotel, I choose the venison burger. Revenge is sweet  -  especially when grilled to perfection.

We turn west under bright but windy skies for Oban, a village renowned for woolen products. Sadly, that industry has suffered in recent years  -  and once-bustling clothing stores stand empty, faded and decaying, with letters missing from the signboards, while a grubby entertainment mall on the harbor-front seems equally doomed. But despite its depressive mien, the town is busy with promenading tourists, all bundled up against the breeze.