- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

BALLATER, Scotland — You don’t have to be royal to enjoy a majestic time in the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral, the sweeping estate where Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, spent their recent honeymoon.

All you need is an appetite for healthy outdoor pursuits and enough time to appreciate the beautiful scenery of purple-heather-clad glens, rich pine woods and flowing rivers.

Anyone in a rush risks being frustrated by the twisty, narrow Highland roads, which can turn a trip of several dozen miles into a long drive, albeit one the traveler is unlikely to forget — not least because of the locals’ alarmingly fast driving.

A good route into the eastern Scottish Highlands is the A93 road, which starts outside the historic city of Perth and almost immediately passes Scone Palace, the crowning place of Scottish kings, including Macbeth.

The first part of the drive took me through lush green pastures dotted with sturdy cottages with whitewashed stone and slate roofs. The large number of dead pheasants on the road made for a vivid reminder of Scotland’s rich wildlife.

Rolling fields gave way to small but steep valleys patterned with shaggy grass, heather and rocks. Frequent parking spaces lined the smooth-surfaced road, allowing the vacationer to stop and take in the eerie sense of isolation. Apart from sheep, the inhabitants you are most likely to see in this region are the wild deer that gather within easy viewing distance.

On the horizon loomed the summit of Cairnwell mountain, which in early April was still streaked with snow and appeared much higher than its 3,000 feet. The peak, on the edge of the Cairngorm range, is part of the Glenshee ski area, which is open from December to April, depending on snowfall. It is best visited in February or March.

As Balmoral Castle drew nearer, the rugged landscape changed again, making way for dense pine forests, small stone bridges and the bubbling River Dee, which gives its name to the region, Royal Deeside.

The small village of Crathie is the stopping point for a visit to Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth II’s Highland retreat and favorite summer holiday destination. Her ancestor Queen Victoria built the castle about 150 years ago and spent much of her reign there after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

Balmoral is open daily to visitors from late March until early August. A visit includes access to the castle gardens and the ballroom — the only room in the castle open to the public.

Visitors to the estate can follow guided walks, go pony-trekking or pay to fish on the castle grounds, which also have holiday cottages available for rental, although restrictions apply during the summer. Birkhall, the hunting lodge where Charles and Camilla spent their honeymoon on the estate, is closed to the public.

About a nine-mile drive from Balmoral lies Ballater, a pretty town of gray stone houses, cozy pubs and friendly shops, many of which bear gilded coats of arms indicating royal patronage.

Bed-and-breakfasts are plentiful in Ballater, and in midspring, just a few days’ notice was required to get a room at the comfortable Craigard Lodge. Reservations should be made well in advance for the summer, the peak tourist season. Several hotels also are in the area, including the Hilton Craigendarroch just outside Ballater.

A hearty Scottish breakfast, which may include eggs, bacon, sausages and porridge, is recommended if vigorous outdoor pursuits are planned. Salmon fishing, mountain biking, hiking and golf are among the many activities available. The spectacular Loch Muick is reached easily from Ballater, and a walk around the lake takes several hours.

Thick woolen jumpers, colorful pottery, honey and delicious homemade shortbread biscuits are among the articles shoppers may want to bring back as Highland souvenirs. Among the culinary treats, the local salmon stands out.

The Balmoral area is easy to reach by car from Edinburgh, which is linked to Perth and the start of the A93 by the M90 freeway. Numerous rental-car firms operate at the Edinburgh airport.

• • •

For tourism information on the Royal Deeside area, visit www.royal-deeside.org.uk.

Craigard Lodge, Abergeldie Road, Ballater, Scotland, AB35 5RR; visit freespace.virgin.net/g.andm.walker/index.htm or call 44/133-975-3258. Three rooms; rates begin at about $44 per person, double occupancy, breakfast included.

Hilton Craigendarroch, Braemar Road, Ballater, Scotland, AB35 5XA, www.hilton.co.uk; 44/133-975-5858. Rates vary by season, beginning at about $109 per person.

Balmoral Castle and estate. Access from the visitor center at Crathie, on the A93 midway between Braemar and Ballater; www.balmoralcastle.com; 44/133-974-2534. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Aug. 1. Admission: about $11.

Scone Palace, on the A93, two miles north of Perth; www.scone-palace.co.uk; 44/173-855-2300. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. until Oct. 31. Admission: $12.50.

Glenshee ski center, on the A93, about 84 miles north of Edinburgh; www.ski-glenshee.co.uk ; 44/133-974-1320.

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