Many moons ago, I used up the last couple of days of an Inter-Rail ticket by taking a half-price trip on the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness. I woke up the next morning to the bewildering spectacle of a gaggle of Americans agitatedly looking out of the carriage windows at what they believed was the Loch Ness monster. With binoculars you could certainly make out a dorsal fin of some kind, though I hadn't the heart to tell them it belonged to a bottlenose dolphin, and the stretch of water they were looking at was the Moray Forth, not Loch Ness.
Nessie continues to beguile, frustrate and bore in equal measure and this year is the 80th anniversary of the first official "sighting" of her. Nessiemania achieved overkill long ago, which is why I was attracted by the opening of a trail along the south side of Loch Ness. In contrast to the traffic-clogged A82 that runs down the north-west side of the Great Glen and the loch, the southern shores and woodland are little visited.
I start this walk by taking the sleeper train again: you can't see Loch Ness from it but what you can see from the railway tracks is a wonderful, unheralded mountain range, the Monadhliaths, that will later accompany me for the length of the walk. They're substantial and roll away towards the Cairngorms. "The Monadhliath mountains are the least known, least walked, least explored in Scotland but they offer a wilderness experience second to none," says my walking companion, Graeme Ambrose from Destination Loch Ness. "They make you realise that Loch Ness is actually a stupendous place to walk, monster or no. People know very little about the south side," he adds diplomatically. "But that's OK – we're looking to bring the benefits of tourism to the area but not bring hordes of tourists."
So far, it seems the right balance has been struck. Although it's a Sunday morning, we pass just a handful of people along the seven miles of the route. We begin by the Whitebridge Hotel, two-thirds of the way down and a little inland from the loch. There's a historical curiosity to examine before we set off: the 18th-century Wade Bridge, a grassed-over hump-back, single-span delight that arcs over the River Fechlin. Its historical resonance is perhaps less pleasing locally – it was one of a succession of bridges on the road that linked the English barracks at Fort Augustus with Inverness.
The route is enchanting and peaceful. We spot roe deer and a cuckoo perched on a post, the sort of skittish creatures that steer clear of the bustling north side of the loch. We don't see golden eagles, but they are around, along with buzzards, red kites and goshawks. We leave forestry land, crossing boggy mires and streams to another delightful stone bridge near Foyers. A brief diversion drops us down to the Falls of Foyers, two graceful waterfalls, one dropping 33 feet, the other falling spectacularly for 100 feet into an exquisite pear-shaped lake. Ash, Scots pine and oak complete the picture, while the keen-eyed may spot otters, pine martens and bats at dusk. The setting has enchanted the whole spectrum of British poetry, from Robert Burns to Keats, Wordsworth and the less well peer-reviewed William McGonagall.
The views of the loch are fleeting, but beyond Foyers the path winds up among a mixture of pines and broadleaf trees to a rocky outcrop with superb views across the lake and Mealfuarvonie, the highest peak that overlooks the loch. "It feels like you're in the middle of nowhere, but you're just 20 miles from Inverness," says Graeme. The end of the walk is beautiful. We follow waymarkers down a sloping track to a small car park set below gorgeous woodland and overlooked by the formidable bulk of Dun Deardail. There is a seemingly impenetrable gorge at its base that makes me vow to return and explore further.
Travelling back to Inverness, my reverie of a Nessie-free day is broken at Dores beach. The view of the loch is sensational and it looks like something out of a Norwegian fjord travel brochure. Nearby is the clapped out caravan that has long been home to Steve Feltham, full-time Nessie hunter. Steve is an engaging chap and seems to sustain his lifestyle, in part, by selling quirky sculptures of the ever-elusive monster. He's been hunting for 22 years and, like everyone else, he's still waiting.
Distance: seven miles.
Time: three hours:
OS Map: Explorer 416, Inverness, Loch Ness & Culloden.
Start point: Whitebridge Hotel, Whitebridge.
Finish: Farigaig Forest car park.
The South Loch ness trail is well waymarked. Details at visitlochness .com/south-loch-ness-trail.
Mark Rowe travelled to Inverness with the Caledonian Sleeper (0844 556 5636; scotrail .co.uk/sleeper) which links London Euston with more than 40 locations in Scotland, nightly except Saturday. ScotRail also runs trains to Inverness from Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Whitebridge Hotel, Whitebridge, Stratherrick, near Inverness IV2 6UN (01456 486226; whitebridgehotel.co.uk). Doubles start at £86, including breakfast.