High misty mountains, deep mysterious lochs, bloody battles and nature at its finest; that is the Highlands of Scotland and a whole lot more. Hopefully, I can take you to places you've never been when I was exploring the Highlands, as well as some familiar much-loved locations in one of my favourite parts of the world.
There is something magical about the Highlands, and there is still much more exploring by me to be done. I hope to come back one day soon. Hopefully next time I get a few days with fewer showers and more blue sky.
Whatever the weather, Scotland puts on a fantastic show, and everyone should come and explore the Highlands
A slight detour off the A9 will bring you to the Highland Wildlife Zoo, 7 miles south of Aviemore, at the Kingussie turnoff. I wanted to come to this zoo as it has polar bears, and I was intrigued as to how they would live up here.
All the enclosures aren't far from the car park and visitor centre. There are also two cafes here and a playground for the kids.
I was especially keen to see the Arctic Foxes with their summer coats on. They looked so adorable and smaller than I thought they were.
Of course, the polar bears were next, and this was the mother and son swimming in their pond. I wasn't happy with any of the photos, as they were a bit far away. The male bears are across the other side of the park. They have at least four bears in total in the park.
I got there mid-afternoon, so some animals were easily seen including the European Wolves. Others like to Snow Leopard were still elusive to me.
Sleeping wolves on their platform close to our viewing platform but still curious about all the humans around
This is also a safari park. After looking around the animals in the enclosures, it was back in the car and heading around the park. Here you see deer, elk, bison, and more. This is where I got the best view of the male Polar Bear eating his dinner.
A very natural environment zoo with animals you don't usually see. Great for the kids.
Culloden is just an 11-minute drive outside Inverness. For anyone who has watched Outlander, it should be well-known to you. If you don't know the history of what happened here, then you should definitely go into the exhibition at the information centre.
Inside the exhibition, you can also see artefacts, dug up from the ground, left untouched for over 200 years. You will be immersed in the emotions within the 360-degree battle theatre.
You have to pay for the exhibition. It's free to walk the grounds and go up to the roof of the Visitor Centre. Here you will see views across the battleground.
This is the view from the roof of the visitor centre of the vast expanse of land which holds the battleground that you can walk around
You can either walk around the battleground yourself or take a guided tour around the key areas of the battleground. Either way, you will stop at the memorial cairn for the Jacobite soldiers.
As you walk through the battleground, you can see where the ground is being returned to 1746. It was a very boggy and inhospitable place.
Dotted around the grounds are markers to the different Clans that fought here.
This is a genuinely emotional place to be, and although the grounds are free to walk around, you do have to pay for parking. There is a cafe and gift shop here as well for you to refresh and find a book on your clan history. This is a great place for all the family.
When you're exploring the Highlands, Loch Ness is at the top of everyone's list and for an excellent reason; it sums up the Highlands in legend, remoteness and history.
It has just come out in the media that Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, has done extensive research into the Loch Ness monster. They have discovered that it is most likely a giant eel (something I might add I have been saying for years). So come to Loch Ness, do a cruise, and you might see the "monster".
Before you do your cruise, you might want to explore the village of Drumnadrochit. Another must-see is the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition.
Entering the exhibition, you are taken on a journey through 500 million years of history. This is presented as a hi-tech multi-media presentation through seven themed areas before you arrive in the museum. It is here that you get more information, especially on modern-day Nessie sightings fact and fiction.
A must-do before you head out on your cruise.
The Loch Ness cruise I did was Deepscan Cruises, whose ticket office is next door to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition.
They depart hourly, but it's best to book as soon as you get there. There is no online booking service and as there is limited seating at 12 people per cruise, it's best to get in quick. Cruises are run between Easter and October.
You are picked up from outside the cafe and taken down to the boat to start your adventure.
As you have probably been able to tell I didn't see Nessie. I've been twice out on the loch now so third time lucky next time.
You travel first, up the loch along the southern shore. When you go past Urquhart Castle, you before turn back getting better views of the castle.
You learn about the history of the area and how deep the Loch is (deeper than the English Channel at 240 metres and the North Sea).
I didn't do Urquhart Castle this time, but you should if you like walking through castle ruins. You have views over the loch and maybe you'll get a sighting of Nessie.
Eileen Donan Castle is on the western side of the Highlands heading towards the Isle of Skye. This 13th Century property is a good place to stop at if you're going towards the Isle of Skye. You could also take a drive and visit just the castle.
Driving to the Castle, you see more dramatic Highland country. Keep an eye out for any deer that may be near the side of the road too.
Eileen Donan Castle is one of the most photographed and easily recognisable castles in Scotland.
At the Castle, there is a big enough car park to take everyone, and it is free. This is one of the rare properties in Scotland where you can't take photographs inside.
The Castle fell into ruin after it played a part in the Jacobite Rising. Spanish soldiers were there with barrels of gunpowder that the English quickly sent Ships to stop them and the gunpowder being used. Eventually the Spanish were over-run, and that was the beginning of the end of the Rising at Culloden.
The Castle wasn't restored until the 20th Century and visitors have been coming ever since to marvel at its restoration to surviving plans.
You have your usual gift shop and cafe here and visitor centre where you can purchase tickets and get information on the local area.
Are there any Harry Potter fans out there? The Jacobite Steam train is one of the must-sees for you or anyone who loves trains. The train from Fort William to Mallaig passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct twice a day. I haven't been to the afternoon session, but the morning is very busy.
A word of warning if you are coming by car, get here early. I've read that if you arrive an hour before the train passes over, you'll be fine. Wrong!!
The first time I arrived, I was driving from Inverness to Glasgow in one day and thought we'd stop to see the train as it was at this time, we'd be passing. Huge mistake. The carpark at Glenfinnan Visitor Centre is full probably an hour and a half before the train passes over. Even an hour before you'll be lucky to find a park. There is street parking a bit further up in a no through road that was also full by the time I was there an hour before. I parked about half a mile back down the road on an off the road layby.
Another warning to be had is if you are parking where I did if there has been a lot of rain, it will be muddy and slippery. A car went off the road and in a ditch when I was coming back and had to be pulled out. There are probably only about 20 parks here so be early.
Once you are here there, is still plenty to keep you occupied until the train comes along.
As well as the gift shop, cafe and toilets, the visitor centre has an exhibition on the history of the Jacobite rebellion. With models and a comprehensive timeline, if you didn't know the history by now, you certainly would by the time you left.
Information boards, timelines and models bring this exhibitions history to life.
Across the road, you have the Glenfinnan monument in front of Lake Shiel.
In 1644, Bonnie Prince Charlie embarked on his journey to secure the crown back in his father's hands, from this spot. Coming ashore here he rallied the Highlanders to fight with him.
You can climb to the top of the Monument for a fee, and see amazing views of Loch Shiel.
Now, this tranquil spot only has the hordes of tourists visiting.
This Loch was also used in the Harry Potter films as the lake at Hogwart's and featured as the lake in the Triwizard Cup.
I got the best view of the Loch from the track up behind the visitor centre to view the train going over the Viaduct.
There are a few spots to see the train pass over the viaduct. When you hear the train whistle be ready at your spot to see it seconds later.
The track behind the Visitor Centre is the one I chose this time. This track leads you up the hill behind the centre. It's a bit rocky but not too bad although going back down it's very crowded with about 50 people going down at once.
This spot also has great views over Loch Shiel.
You can also stay on the ground and look up onto the Viaduct. This one I might try one day, just to get the feel of the train passing over the top of me.
The other spot is on the hillside looking down the Viaduct. From here you'll have the train coming straight at you until it turns to follow the hill around. I definitely want to find this one next time.
For the adventurous walkers, you may find other spots to take your photos. Once again if you're there early enough, you should have plenty of time to explore, or you could stop at one place in the morning and explore for another place for the afternoon or return services.
You can search google images, Instagram or other social media sites for photos to see which angle you prefer.
The Jacobite Steam Train takes you exploring the Highlands between Fort William and Mallaig and operates twice a day morning and afternoon. It runs from mid-April to the end of September.
If you want to travel on the train, BOOK EARLY. I don't know how early but if you know when you want to go I'd book it then as it fills up fast. You can check out the availability on their website here.
I was given a tip from a friend who made the trip and said she wouldn't bother travelling first class again. You get a better view from the back and with the train always booked out you would share a table with people you don't know unless there is a group of you. That would be alright if you wanted a social trip.
Seating is allocated, so that's another reason to get in early. You might be lucky and get a window seat. Check out the FAQ section here to see if it answers any questions you might have.
Picture yourself on the Jacobite Steam train travelling through the Highlands to the sea.
If your exploring includes walking up mountains, then you don't get any bigger in the Highlands, let alone Scotland than Ben Nevis.
When in Fort William, I always stay in the YHA which is right across the road and river from the start of the Ben Nevis track.
I have never done this, but maybe one day I'll think I am fit enough to take it on. You can't see the summit from down here.
You can get more information on the walk and what is needed here or visit the Visitor Centre just down the road. A good website to visit for a comprehensive outline of all the walks on Ben Nevis can be found here.
This is one of my favourite drives in the world. Not only is it insanely scenic, but there are numerous laybys and parks to stop at about every kilometre or so.
Walks can be undertaken from these carparks into the Glens. You can find the information you are after here about the walks and history of Glencoe.
I didn't do any walks but did stop and get out at all the opportunities. This is such a magical and majestic area that it does have to be seen to be believed, and I would love to come back and do some exploring of this part of the Highlands.
I hope that you enjoy exploring the Highlands as much as I do. There is so much more to explore in the Highlands than I have been able to do. The Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides and high on my list for next time as is walking the trails in Glencoe. With so much to do, you'll never be wondering what to do next when you're exploring the Highlands.
Join us on this private half day tour from Bergen to Vossevangen. Experience the Voss Gondol to Mount Hanguren and lunch at Hangurstoppen Restaurant.