The thrill of standing within a few yards of a wild dolphin somersaulting in friendly greeting to another is a spectacular experience. Combine it with views of Black Isle and Moray Firth and it is matchless.
I am in the Scottish Highlands visiting Aigas House, a field centre set up in a Victorian country house 30 years ago by Sir John Lister-Kay to provide nature holidays for wildlife enthusiasts. The centre has established itself as a key spot for bird and wildlife watching, photography courses and nature and history trails.
The intention is to get a taste of Highland wildlife, but I've come ill-prepared, without wellies, waterproofs or binoculars, a source of some amusement to Dr Ieuan Evans, the programme director. He hands me the necessaries and a cup of hot chocolate. The staff aim to make guests feel comfortable at Aigas and the atmosphere is, indeed, very friendly.
Aigas's guests stay in three rooms in the house or the timber lodges in its mossy grounds, where trees drip with lichen – a sign of the clean air, I'm informed. It's a sociable affair: the lodges have communal lounges, and there is a library and sitting room in the main house too. Guests come together to eat at the long dining table in the baronial-style hall, joined by the Aigas crew.
I wake before dawn to catch my first sight of wildlife: beavers. The bucked-tooth wanderers, hunted to near extinction in the 18th century, are kept within the confines of Aigas – releasing beaver into the wild is illegal – to demonstrate the benefits of reintroducing the semi-aquatic rodents. Beside the silken loch, the beavers build dams – an environment in which invertebrates thrive – and from the trees they fell, coppices grow. Even at 4am in the freezing cold, I find them fascinating to watch.
Later, I join Ieuan's wildlife-watching group on a trip through Caledonian pine forests to the tranquil shores of Loch Ruthven. I sit quietly on the sandy bay, training my binoculars on a black dot across the still water – a red-throated diver. And then I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Slovenian grebe and a huge osprey, a bird reintroduced in Scotland in 1955. On the drive back past Loch Ness, I see my first buzzard and the long-legged curlew. Next, I join a hike through the lush heathers up a hill in Glen Strathfarra to spot golden eagle and red deer.
Dark forests of Sitka spruce, planted after the Second World War, dominate the hilltops. Sir John is restoring a stretch of such woodland. This is no green wash; Aigas's environmental responsibility is what will keep wildlife enthusiasts coming for another three decades and more.
How to get there
GNER (08457 225225; gner.co.uk) offers return fares from London to Inverness from £30. ScotRail (0845 601 5929; firstscotrail.com) offers returns from Inverness to Beauly from £3.
Aigas Field Centre, Beauly, Inverness-shire (01463 782443; aigas.co.uk) runs a variety of courses in 2008 for wildlife enthusiasts from £450 for four days, including transfers, accommodation, meals and all activities led by a ranger guide.Reuse content