You take the cycle road...

...and you will get a naturally air-conditioned perspective on the Scottish Highlands. Jane Drinkwater took a 190-mile spin through the hills and the heather

EUSTON STATION is not a romantic place, but pulling out of there on the 9.30pm sleeper to Inverness certainly has its charms - the main one being that you wake up in the middle of the Scottish Highlands the following morning.

With a day's cycling ahead we did not want to risk a poor night's sleep so we headed straight to the train bar for a whisky which we sipped over a game of cards. We need not have worried - the two-bed sleeping carriages were cosy, the bed linen crisp, and a couple of complimentary washbags were waiting to be plundered.

Another nice touch was breakfast in bed - a coffee and croissant eaten with the Cairngorms rolling by in the near distance. Sure enough there was mist between the hills, but the patchy blue sky suggested perfect cycling weather.

After saddling our mountain bikes with panniers (packing reduced to a minimalist art) we set off on our ride from Inverness to Stirling - a staggering 190 miles. Our first stop was a cafe about a mile from Inverness station where we ordered a large fry-up - with a 65-mile cycle ahead a croissant and coffee wouldn't last.

Cycling 190 miles in three days is not everybody's idea of a break but the route takes a similar course as the rail track so you can tailor your trip according to your stamina level. If hell-for-leather cycling doesn't appeal you can meander through a few Highland towns at a more civilised pace or visit one of the whisky distilleries in the area which are open to the public. Blair Atholl and Pitlochry are about 92 and 99 miles from Inverness and the sleeper stops at both. Whatever your pace, the scenery along the Scottish national cycle route is spectacular whether its the backdrop of the purple heather-covered Grampians, the rolling green hills of Stirlingshire, or the industrial archaeology around Glasgow.

Only three miles out of Inverness and you are in the Forest of Culloden, skirting the famous battleground. With a seven-hour battle of our own ahead we pressed on, bracing ourselves for the big hills. Sustrans, the Bristol-based charity which has lottery funding to set up a National Cycle Network across Britain, have signposted the route which takes you along minor roads, bridleways and disused railways (and the busy A9 in a couple of places.) When completed in 2000, the backbone of the National Cycle Network will run from Inverness to Dover.

After a hefty lunch of venison stew and chips, and a pint of 80-shilling ale, we picked up the route along the River Spey. The trout were jumping, the Spey was an ink-like swirl, and downriver a few gents in full wading regalia were exhibiting their casting skills. The stresses and strains of London living were falling by the thistled wayside.

The second day was a different story. The "official" Sustrans route follows the busy A9 for about 12 miles after Dalwhinnie so we opted to go over Glen Tromie and descend through the Forest of Atholl. Fine for mountain bikes, bad for racers. The bridleway ascent took us into remote territory - the mountain ridges above us were jagged, the lower slopes occasionally dappled with deer glancing over to see who had invaded their territory. The only signs of civilisation were a couple of hunting lodges. The sun struggled to penetrate the granite valley, but when it broke through the loch-side area was washed in blues, purples and greens.

The cycling was tough because the glen acted as a funnel for a strong headwind which created white horses on the loch, but frayed our nerves. Expecting to arrive at a pub by 1pm, the three of us stumbled in with sore knees at 3pm - ready to devour the menu.

We had expected to see more birds of prey in such remote territory but the main impression of wildlife came from the large number of dead rabbits on the road - even the disused A9, which has been overrun with weeds and cyclists, had its fair share of the corpses.

That night we stayed at the Croft-na-Caber activity centre on Loch Tay after a 70-mile ride. The centre, just outside the picturesque village of Kenmore, has superb views over the loch, which is as stunning as Loch Ness but with a fraction of the tourists. The centre, which also has log- cabin accommodation for those wishing to stay at least two days, offers kayaking, sailing, and other activities as well as white-water rafting on River Tay near Aberfeldy (the national slalom course.) Incapable of activity we ended our day with a stroll by the moonlit loch and breathed the pure Perthshire air.

Our final day started with the 14-mile rollercoaster route along the south side of Loch Tay which gives panoramic views down the loch - sunshine in Kenmore, ominous black clouds ahead. Clocking our highest speed of 42mph we cruised down to the junction at the Falls of Dochart in Killin where the river tumbles over the shelves of granite rock.

Ten miles further on, we found the pubs in Kingshouse too near the busy road for comfort and opted for a picnic near Loch Lubnaig instead. A fallen and hewn oak tree provided an impromptu set of table and chairs. After the town of Callander we abandoned the Sustrans route from Glasgow to Carlisle, and followed the A84 to Stirling where we would be picking up the sleeper at midnight. We were in gentler, rolling landscape and as soon as Stirling Castle came into view perched high on a rock, we knew we were rolling for home. After showering at the local swimming pool we had our final guilt-free blow-out dinner of Scottish salmon and Angus beef at the Scholars restaurant before before boarding the train. My head was full of indelible images of stunning Scottish scenery.

On our way to Euston (we were an hour late at 9.20am), we passed through a few suburban towns, including Leighton Buzzard where the platform was packed with commuters with briefcases. Lying in our beds, sipping cups of tea, we were disappointed to be back in the city, but agreed it wasn't a bad way to commute. Despite the embarrassment of a day at work in crumpled cycle gear, the trip had been so good there was even some wild talk about doing it again in the opposite direction.

FACT FILE

highlands by bicycle

Take the sleeper

The sleeper train from London Euston to Inverness runs from Sundays to Fridays departing Euston at 9.30pm and arriving in Inverness at 7.47am. On the return journey, the train leaves Inverness at 8.30pm, Blair Atholl at 10.30pm, Pitlochry at 10.42pm and Stirling at 12.04am. The standard fare is pounds 119, but the APEX fare, booked seven days in advance, costs pounds 99. Cycles can be taken on the sleeper at no extra cost.

Cycling around the Highlands

For detailed bi-directional maps of the route (map 7c for the Inverness to Glasgow section and map NN7B for Glasgow to Carlisle) write to Sustrans, PO BOX 21, Bristol BS99 2HA (tel: 0117-926 8893), or visit the website at http://www.sustrans.org.uk. Maps cost pounds 5.99 each (plus pounds 1.50 p&p)orders.

Where to stay

On the first night, the author stayed at the Osprey Hotel, Ruthven Road, Kingussie (tel: 01540 661510). This stone-built house is 65 miles from Inverness and owners Aileen and Robery Burrows serve excellent home cooking in portion sizes that are good for hungry cyclists. Dinner, bed and breakfast costs pounds 45 per person

Croft-na-Caber activity centre, overlooking Loch Tay at Kenmore, (tel: 01887 830236) offers b&b for between pounds 30 and pounds 35 per person. An autumn- break package is available until 22 December, price pounds 105 per person for three nights' dinner, bed and breakfast. (For a pounds 30 a night supplement you can stay in a four-berth log cabin.) Activities on offer include sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing and white-water rafting.

Scholars Restaurant, Stirling Highland Hotel, Stirling (tel: 01786 475444). Converted from an old high school, the restaurant serves excellent Scottish food in an old assembly room. Try to change out of your cycle gear before going. Price pounds 50 per head for the full works.

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