An Eden east of Edinburgh

Peter Moss finds year-round peace and beauty among East Lothian's golden dunes and nature reserves

As I always discover, 4am in Edinburgh during the festival is time to saddle up my Saab and head for my digs, away from the city centre, between a golf course and the Firth of Forth.

Late at night, guided only by the intermittent flashing of the lighthouse beacons out in the Firth, the drive along the East Lothian coastline is a magical experience. From Edinburgh to Dunbar, in a 25-mile arc, you enter a world of golden beaches, brooding castles, dense nature reserves, bird sanctuaries and unspoiled Victoriana. Darkness only adds to the drama.

Next morning, oblivious to my late, late night, my children hit me with an early start. They want to get the first boat out from the gloriously time-warped resort of North Berwick to Bass Rock. It's lunacy. I've had 90 minutes sleep, I'm still thinking in punchlines, and I haven't eaten in 24 hours. We skip breakfast and make for the harbour.

The captain of the boat is unrelenting. "It's nae good turning up wi'out a sou-wester, ye Sassenach tossers," he bellows at anyone who will listen, but me in particular. "Wee birdies will shit all over ye." It's true. To sail out to Bass Rock is to risk defecation by kittiwake. These gull- like missiles are serious over-eaters. No boat trip around the Lothian coast is complete without being dive-bombed by hundreds of the critters as they scour the sea for lunch.

The treasure of North Berwick, apart from its many seafaring activities, is Tantallon Castle. A wildly exposed monolith on the edge of nowhere, its elaborate moat, its every rampart, serve to remind of dark doings in days gone by. The sheer theatre of Tantallon is served best by a winter visit, if only to frolic in the snow-filled moat and break icicles off the underside of the drawbridge. Queen Victoria used to visit Tantallon in the winter, and she knew how to frolic.

Head west from North Berwick, via Dirleton Castle, and you hit the jewel in the East Lothian crown, the intriguingly named Gullane Bents. Eight times I've been to the village of Gullane, summer and winter, and still I don't know what Bents are - I think they mean dunes.

Anyway, the dunes separate the village from - and I say this unequivocally, without flinching - the most wonderful beach in these sainted isles. A golden curve of ankle-deep sand that stretches to Aberlady Bay and always seems utterly and blissfully deserted. No ice-cream vans, no ghetto-blasters, no kiss-me-quick headgear. Just peace and solitude, dawn till dusk.

Many were the summers at the festival, when, rather than doss down with other semi-comatose showbiz wannabes in the city, I would rent a house in Gullane large enough for me and my rampant family, retriever and setter included. Equally, many of the winters - for Gullane at Christmas time offers the real prospect of a total escape from the seasonal hype, laying on instead a visual feast of snow drifts at times so severe you are looking at two sets of dunes, one white, one gold.

The other way to stay in Gullane - the only way, some say - is to check in to the majestic Lutyens pile known as Greywalls Hotel. A rare piece of clifftop splendour, Greywalls has the added bonus, assuming the ancient game's your thing, of a backyard called Muirfield golf course. East Lothian is rich in links and Muirfield is the daddy of them all. Re-designed by Jack Nicklaus, this is sport with a view, though such is its proximity to the cliff-edge, the term "free drop" takes on a whole new meaning.

Gullane's high street, such as it is, contains barely a dozen shops, along with three tea rooms, a bistro and one full-blown restaurant, La Potiniere. It is advisable to book a long time ahead for this restaurant. This place is seriously small, the food seriously fantastic; it has barely more tables than it has Michelin rosettes.

Let me explain how we managed to get a table last summer, at just four months' notice. "I'm so sorry, Mr Moss, we have nae table until ... oh, wait a wee moment now. Lady McLeish died. You can have her table."

If you're heading up to Edinburgh, take time out for the train ride to North Berwick. It takes in all these coastal towns and the scenery is gorgeous. Better yet, stay at Greywalls, where the only sounds you'll hear are golf balls pinging, and horses cantering over the dunes in the early morning sun. You might also hear the sound of extremely loud trousers. Greywalls is very popular with American golfers, and in a place that insists on jacket and tie at dinner, it's amazing what passes in the leg department.

Night-time in East Lothian is achingly beautiful, and at Aberlady Bay there's a very special magic. On my way back from the festival late shift, I sat there watching the cross-currents sweep the waves into one another, as curlews and oyster-catchers pirouetted on the sand. Rabbits, which hide in their burrows on Aberlady's nature reserve quietly emerge in the wee small hours. I think they know something.

EAST LOTHIAN

WHERE TO STAY

Greywalls Hotel (tel: 01620 842144) offers basic single rooms for pounds 100 and double rooms for pounds 200. In October, you can book two nights accommodation, with breakfast and excellent dinners, for pounds 215 per person, based on two sharing.

WHERE TO EAT

La Potiniere (tel: 01620 843214) is outstanding - but you may have to book up to a year ahead. Dinner for two with wine costs about pounds 60.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Edinburgh and Lothians tourism (tel: 0131-473 3900).

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