What is it really like travelling Scotland in the time of Covid?
I’M back on the road. You’d expect that as a travel writer. It feels strange though.
Very strange. As strange as the rabbit hole I’ve burrowed down since flying back from Italy as Covid-19 hit there in February. I’ve not been in a hotel or a restaurant.
Not even a shop. I’ve not driven anywhere. My world has become startlingly small, as it has for many of us.
But now I’m setting off to explore the new normal as Scottish tourism tentatively returns. In my sights are a family-run hotel, a horse truck conversion, a cruise ship that isn’t a cruise ship and Scotland’s most famous resort hotel. The physical effort of getting in the car is not great.
It’s more metaphysical issues I’m struggling with. Should I even be travelling when there are new infections daily, people are still in hospital and, yes, people are still dying? Is it insensitive, distasteful even?
A friend soothes that people are going to travel anyway, so at least I’m trying to offer an insight into what it’s like. Another friend just bluntly declares it’s my job so get on with it like everyone else. I won’t just be going anywhere.
Broadcasting on BBC Radio recently I was reminded of how different the situation and sentiment is in some of Scotland’s island communities. Understandable when NHS Western Isles are the only health board in Scotland to record zero Covid-19 deaths to date. I’m acutely aware of our safety too as I’m sitting by my wife Jenny with our two young daughters in the back.
We’ve multiple face masks and a gooey hand gel lake decanted into various vessels. I spend the first half hour reminding the girls of the Scottish Government’s snappy FACTS campaign. Snappy, but I still need to look up what the ‘C’ stands for.
First up is Loch Melfort Hotel, a real escape out on the wild and wildly beautiful west coast of Argyll. The owner is a high heidjin in Visit Scotland so they should get it right. Over a physically distanced coffee with the isles of Luing, Jura and Scarba sparkling behind him Calum Ross explains: “It’s a real balance between making sure we take all the essential public health precautions, while at the same time ensuring it’s still an enjoyable and rewarding experience for our guests”.
Reassuringly Loch Melfort do get it right. They have clear signage branded with an image of Dougal, one of the Highland Cows who grazes happily outside, oblivious to the pandemic swirling around. ‘Dougal says’ signs remind us to socially distance and to use the gel dispenser as we enter the lobby. He pops up again in our room helping us to find the hotel directory online.
In the restaurant staff wear visors and dispense sanitised plastic menus. I momentarily miss a crisp white linen tablecloth, but this is soon forgotten when my Argyll beef fillet topped with local langoustines sweeps in. The girls and Jenny are tucking in too.
I see Dougal outside. He seems to approve. As do our fellow diners.
It’s good to be with strangers smiling and laughing rather than just seeing our neighbours clap awkwardly on a Thursday. Next up we’re off on a cruise ship. The Foreign Office almost stymies us by bringing in a blanket ban on cruise travel just before we sail.
Fortunately wee Red Moon is husband and wife run and takes just four passengers so our nuclear family is a charter rather than a cruise. Scott and Mary welcome us aboard like old friends, just ones who don’t shake hands anymore. Their trim, beautifully fitted out marine hotel is equipped with a flotilla of hand gel and they explain they’ll clean our bathroom daily, just not our cabins.
They stress the use of gel going ashore and also that we must stay away from Mary’s cooking space in the galley. We spend four days puttering around close to shore after deciding to avoid inhabited isles. We ramble around rugged Bernera, where once St Columba preached under a giant yew tree.
It doesn’t look like anyone has visited since. We also take the tender ashore in an overnight anchorage at Loch a’ Choire in Morvern. We do stumble upon locals, but they are red deer and soaring golden eagles.
Just off Lismore we are graced with a sea eagle and dolphins. Then it happens. On sleepy Balnagowan we presume the island’s owner is not around.
We row ashore to avoid disrupting the local seal colony, who are intrigued by our landing party and send scouts over to investigate. I ramble off alone, mindful of protective nesting seabirds and there she is. The lady owner of Balnagowan.
I immediately spill into apologetic mode, but she stops me in my tracks with a beaming smile saying how happy she is just to see someone. Lockdown must have been very lonely on Balnagowan. Back on land we gun east for Perthshire and the cosseted world of Gleneagles.
But can you achieve world-class five-star luxury in the time of Covid-19 with safety precautions in and swimming pools and spas out? The answer is a resounding yes. On arrival no one seems to mind the lack of valet parking as they shimmy respectfully through the grand racing green lobby sticking to the left as signs advise.
We sanitise ourselves before meeting the receptionist, whose smile beams through her mask and screen. Again these measures reassure rather than concern. The swimming pools may be off bounds, but impressively the spa has managed to re-open, offering limited virus sensitive treatments such as a face down massages.
All the restaurants have re-opened. We savour the excellent Indian dishes of the Dormy (the ‘best dhal I’ve ever had in Scotland’ raves Jenny), the swish new Birnam Brasserie, with its fish and meat grills, and that grand old world dame, the Strathearn. At the Strathearn they’ve retained the white linen tablecloths, though they politely inform us we have to look after our own napkins – treacherous waters for a serial napkin dropper like myself.
Once we settle in we soon forget about their visors and the sommelier is just the ever helpful sommelier and the waiters just supremely friendly waiters. In lieu of swimming we do what governments on both sides of the border have been recommending – get outdoors. First up is gundog training, a country pursuit I never experienced growing up on a council house scheme in West Lothian, but which thrills the girls who don’t care about having to wear plastic gloves.
Then it is on to archery, shooting and falconry as we rattle through a greatest hits of Scottish country sports. Kids are really looked after here, even more so these days as Scott Dunn have just introduced their first ever UK programme of activities this month with Covid-era staycations in mind. When Scotland’s well-heeled travellers realise a foreign holiday this year is a forlorn hope, Gleneagles is ready.
But not everyone can splash out on such decadence. Our last stop is just up the road. We swap fluffy robes and marble bathrooms for a converted Leyland horse truck.
Camping is all the rage this summer. As the author of Cool Camping: Scotland that’s great to see. If the thought of struggling up your own tent on a windy west coast beach is too much, though, glamping tempts.
Alexander House offers a brace of Mongolian style yurts, which are cosy with wood burning stoves and a surprising amount of space, with a separate bathroom with stand alone baths. The decking hosts a gas bbq (acclaimed butcher Simon Howie does click and collect nearby) and a wood fired hot tub. Once we work out how not to cook ourselves it’s a joy.
The new option at Alexander House is Juniper. This vintage Leyland horse truck has been converted into a surprisingly swish hideaway. It’s like a chic urban Airbnb inside, all fresh smelling wood panelling and hipster decor and furnishings.
It also boasts a wee kitchen and the luxury of electricity. Outside we’ve got your own wee fenced area so you can bring a dog. And two kids.
Ours love the resident brace of Highland cows who are very interested in our stay. Perhaps Dougal has forewarned them. I’ve not mentioned Covid-19 for a few paragraphs and that’s telling.
We are now Covid-era travelling veterans, just enjoying the glorious outdoors and the scenery. For the record there are gel stations at the yurts and Juniper, the welcoming couple who run it don’t shake hands and we’re assured our accommodations have been scrupulously sanitised. At the end of our stay our bedding is deep cleaned off site.
When we eked out of our drive it was with real anxiety after being cooped up staring at pandemic ravaged TV screens. Everywhere we went, though, we have been reassured not only by the set-up, but also by the professionalism and consistency of the staff. The only aberrations were from fellow travellers not well versed in Scotland’s lockdown measures, but that’s similar to the confusion you can encounter in your local supermarket.
If you’re thinking of a staycation our message would be go. Oh, but learn the FACTS beforehand unlike me. And perhaps most importantly of all, keep the heid.
Factbox Loch Melfort Hotel – https://www.lochmelfort.co.uk/ Red Moon Cruises – https://www.redmooncruises.co.uk/
Gleneagles – https://gleneagles.com/
Alexander House – https://www.alexanderhousescotland.com/glamping/
Scottish Government Covid advice – https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/