Travel: A short break in Perthshire

Sophie Cooke discovers a part of Scotland that has it all - hills, peaty burns, wildlife, fishing, posh hotels and simple bothies

A holiday in Perthshire (part of Tayside since 1975) is about walking in the hills, spying on birds and wild animals, swimming in silvery lochs, eating and drinking in warm pubs. In the countryside you'll find clear springs, peaty burns, mossy waterfalls, and rich rivers of fish; and while the tourist towns may be fond of flogging themselves in a flurry of tartan tat, off the trail there are plenty of places which prefer not to.

When to go

There's no best time. Perthshire's summer climate makes it rampantly green: pure pot luck whether the sun will shine or not, but when it does you're in a lush region. Autumn smoulders with turning colours and watery light, hit upon by many a naff Victorian painter. It is also a good time for seeing wildlife, as the salmon are migrating and the deer coming down off the mountains. Winter bites, but birch woods encrusted with ice at the toe of a snowy mountain usually win the softest city boy, aided by a slug of whisky. From June to October, take insect repellent; in winter, long johns and a hip-flask - and always take a cagoule.

Getting there

By train, the journey from London King's Cross to Perth takes six hours and costs pounds 85 return at full price. From Edinburgh, the journey takes one hour 30 minutes and costs pounds 14 return. (For times and discount information, tel: 0345 484950.) Car hire from Thrifty (tel: 01738 633677) in Perth starts at pounds 50 for Friday-Monday, pounds 125 for a week. Alternatively, a return flight from London-Edinburgh with Go (tel: 0845 6054321) costs from pounds 60 and takes one hour 15 minutes. Car hire from Hertz (tel: 0131-344 3260) at Edinburgh Airport starts at pounds 75 for Friday-Monday, pounds 119 for a week.

Getting around

Public transport is not fantastic. You need a car - see above; or a bike and good legs. Tourist information offices have details of cycle hire - see Further Information.

Where to stay

The old schoolhouse in Comrie village has clear views up into the hills. Its walled garden leads down to a secluded stretch of river where you can swim in summer. The house has one double and two twin rooms and can be rented through Country Cottages (tel: 01282 841785) for pounds 375-pounds 571 per week or pounds 250-pounds 388 for three days. Having the run of a kitchen, take advantage of the excellent butcher on the main street for venison burgers.

Queen Victoria and John Brown once stopped for the night at the Royal Hotel (tel: 01764 679200) in Comrie. It is elegant, comfortable, and seems popular with older people wanting a quiet sofa by the fire in a well- stocked library. Prints of assorted Highland poseurs line the passages, while a stuffed golden eagle devours a hare in the stairwell. Rooms cost pounds 65-pounds 95 per person, including breakfast.

If you're on a budget, Braincroft Bunkhouse (tel: 01764 670140) is an old farmsteading between Comrie and Crieff where you can stay for pounds 7.50- pounds 9 per night. You can be collected from Gleneagles station (pounds 7.60 return from Perth), and hire a bike from the hostel for pounds 5.

Kinnaird (tel: 01738 710617) in Dunkeld is heaven for lovers of luxurious lounging. Its private house parties were renowned in the 1920s; the mansion dates back to the 1770s and bucolic maidens smile upon the dining room from old Italian frescoes. A huge fire warms the drawing room, which is covered with rich old rugs. The hotel can arrange shooting for clays, pheasant and geese in season, as well as deerstalking on its 9,000-acre estate. There is also a tennis court. Double bedrooms cost pounds 255-pounds 350 per night (shooting is extra). The hotel is closed November to March, but its eight self-catering cottages are available all year round and are only pounds 100 for two nights off-season (tel: 01796 482440). Just outside Dunkeld, by the way, is the excellent Wester Caputh Independent Hostel (tel: 01738 710449) costing pounds 8 per night.

Seated in a wooded gorge is the Killiecrankie Hotel (tel: 01796 473220), a cosy place covered in roses and wisteria and with a garden. Children are very welcome and the food is brilliant. Dinner, bed and breakfast costs pounds 55-pounds 84 per person.

The Loch Tummel Inn (tel: 01882 634272) at Glen Tummel is a lovely old coaching inn run by Liz and Michael Marsden, where television is by request only and mobile phones won't work. With five bedrooms, visitors are more house guests than hotel customers. The bedrooms have beautiful idiosyncrasies: guests in Room One can soak in a bath of soft peaty hillwater with a log fire burning in the hearth beside them. Breakfast is kippers, home-baked bread and creamy porridge in the old hayloft, where the view across the water to the empty wooded hills is quite distracting. This whole glen induces a kind of contentment. As Michael says: "When you get here, you can stop travelling. People need to be still and remember what their childhood senses are for. Just look, listen, smell, and let it all seep in." On a clear autumn night you can hear the call of the rutting stags. Rooms cost pounds 32-pounds 50, including breakfast.

What to see and do

Fishing permits are available locally (tel: 01738 627958). Many hotels have a stretch of water already at their guests' disposal. For serious walkers, there are plenty of mountains: Ben Lawers, the highest in Perthshire at 3,984ft (1,214m), Ben Vorlich (3,231ft), Ben Vrackie (2,760ft) and Schiehallion (3,554ft), a weird near-perfect cone.

The Comrie area. The Lintmill, Comrie's draper's shop, was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Lin and Kenneth Ascough restored it after decades as an ironmonger's and returned it to its original use. You can see Rennie Mackintosh touches everywhere in the counters and panelling. Lin makes gorgeous jumpers to order from merino, cashmere and lambswool (from pounds 48).

Walk up to the Melville Monument for stunning views. The route passes De'il's Cauldron, legendary haunt of a bad brownie with a penchant for luring victims into the waterfall's huge pothole. Further on is a spring known as Kinkhoast Well whose water was used to cure whooping cough (kink being the Scots word for whooping cough). Cough or no, the water is delicious. On Hogmanay, a riotously dressed procession headed by pipers fills the streets of Comrie. At midnight, six flambeaux are lit - huge torches made from birch trunks - and carried round the village before becoming a bonfire in the square.

Children love Auchingarrich, a 100-acre wildlife park a few miles south of Comrie which is home to meerkats and arctic foxes as well as highland cattle. It's open all year from 10am to dusk and has wild bird hatchings from April to October. Entrance pounds 3-pounds 4. To go canoeing on Loch Earn, call Lochearnhead Watersports Centre (tel: 01567 830330). They run children's classes too. Braco Castle Estate (tel: 01786 880539) offers falconry in the summer, prices range from pounds 27.50-pounds 95.

Dunkeld area. The town itself has lots of interesting shops and a beautiful old cathedral. There are walks all around Dunkeld and Birnam. Birnam Wood, of Shakespearean fame, is pretty; but there are other equally gorgeous places in this area. The Hermitage is an idyllic stretch of woodland where the river flows through amber pools, and green light splices treetops hundreds of feet above. An 18th-century folly perches on the edge of a 50ft waterfall where daredevil children are prone to leap in summer; in autumn, migrating salmon take their place. The Hermitage is marked on most road atlases. Go to Loch of the Lowes and you've a good chance of seeing ospreys from the observation hide.

Edradour Distillery, behind Pitlochry, is the smallest distillery in Scotland. It sits by a burn in the woods, the outdoor parts of the stills gurgling furiously. The whisky is nectar. Free tours run until December, the shop is open all year. You can reach the Black Spout waterfall from a muddy path through the old oak woods below Edradour. A great rumbling heralds the sight of 150ft of manic white water, mist rising.

Killiecrankie & Tummel area. Walk down the Pass of Killiecrankie to Pitlochry. The gorge is the eerily beautiful site of the Jacobites' victorious battle in 1689 and paths pass by Soldier's Leap, where fleeing redcoat Donald MacBean jumped 18ft across the river to safety. To the north, Blair Castle, ancient seat of the Dukes of Atholl, sits brilliantly white in the hills like a snowy eagle. Thirty-two rooms are open to the public, with weapons and embroidery on display as well as paintings. The Hercules Garden must have been the grandest kitchen-garden in the British Isles: nine acres, with an ornamental lake, oriental bridge and pagoda. The castle is open April-October, 10am-6pm, entrance is pounds 2-pounds 6. Just past Blair Atholl, the House of Bruar is the place to pick up quality craftwork and country clothing.

There is pony-trekking at Boreland (tel: 01887 830212) from pounds 10 per hour March-October; and kayaking and windsurfing on Loch Tay, through Croft-na-Caber (tel: 01887 830588). A crannog - an ancient loch dwelling used in Scotland from prehistoric times - has been reconstructed in Loch Tay and is fascinating to visit. It is open from April-October. For details, contact the Scottish Crannog Centre (tel: 01887 830583).

Food and drink

I've yet to experience a yen for one local speciality: deep-fried Mars bars. But there are some great fish and chip shops. Alternatively, salmon, venison, beef and berries form the basis of fine suppers, and hotel guests don't have to go far. The famous kitchens of the Killiecrankie Hotel Restaurant produce dishes like salmon, asparagus and yam terrine, and poached pears with spiced red wine, Chantilly cream and shortbread. Which should sort you out after a day in the hills. Dinner is pounds 31, booking is advisable.

At the Loch Tummel Inn there's venison steak with red wine and redcurrant sauce for pounds 12.95, and smoked salmon, lamb shanks, or game pie. The De'il's Cauldron in Comrie is a good restaurant using Scottish ingredients in French-style cooking. Dinner is about pounds 25-pounds 30, including wine, and is delicious.

Nightlife

The Killiecrankie Hotel and Loch Tummel Inn have good bars frequented by locals, the latter has the local Moulin Ale on tap. The Royal Hotel has a bar tucked behind the main hotel which is warm and lively at weekends, with good local bands every fortnight. The Ancaster in Comrie is also a friendly kind of place, big and airy with comfortable benches and a pool table. Head to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre (tel: 01796 484 626) - the "theatre in the hills" - to see work by Tom Gallacher and Alan Ayckbourn, among others, performed to a high standard. The season runs until 16 October. A short walk away, the Port-na-Craig Inn (tel: 01796 472777) on the banks of the Tummel serves pre-theatre suppers.

If you want to lose your senses, go to a ceilidh. Loud whooping and high- speed fiddling fill the ears, and vision is a blur as you're hurled around the room and alcohol rushes through your blood. Find out about ceilidhs from local papers or village noticeboards. If in doubt, ask at the post office.

Further information

Tourist information centres: Perth (tel: 01738 638353); Pitlochry (tel: 01796 472215); Dunkeld (tel: 01350 727688); Crieff (tel: 01764 652578).

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