The Granite city: Aberdeen; Caledonian Thistle & Highlands

 As appeared in the Lancaster Guardian Novermber 6, 2014

I’m gazing at a glorious view of hills and mountains and taking in a lungful of clear countryside air.

An hour ago, I was sitting in a fashionable city centre bar, eating top notch food served by charming and friendly staff. Haggis was on the menu.

This can only be Scotland – but not where you might expect.

The city of Aberdeen, known as the Granite city for the grey buildings hewn out of rock, has long trailed in the wake of mighty tourist destinations Edinburgh and Glasgow.

With a reputation as a hectic hub of the North Sea oil and gas industry, it boasts plenty of visitors, but they often refuel and sleep before heading out to their often well-paid posts out at sea.

In the meantime, they are missing out on the vast array of sights, sounds and tastes of a city that is incredibly welcoming – they even allow in the English who burned it down in 1336…

A quirk of the oil industry trade is that hotel rooms which boast sky-high prices during the week for workers are generally cheaper at weekend, making it an ideal city break destination. We flew into the small but perfectly formed Aberdeen airport direct from Manchester in a little over 40 minutes with Flybe. Our home for the weekend was The Caledonian by Thistle, an impressive granite four-star Victorian hotel, looking over the picturesque Union Terrace gardens.

My room is large and luxurious, boasting a top of the range bathroom, oil industry-themed artwork and huge windows with views across the street with the sights and sounds of the lively Christmas markets.

The location is perfect for a wander into the city centre, its main street with restaurants and bars scattered through the many cobbled Wynds. We dined at several top notch restaurants including the trendy Soul, located in the converted Langstane Church and the fabulous and relaxed Merchant Bistro, with its dishes from seasonal local produce. The Stage Door restaurant also offered delicious steaks as part of its Scottish cuisine with continental influence.

A little further and you are out into the harbour area and seaside. Follow the beach circuit and you find yourself in Old Aberdeen, with its ancient university buildings and cathedral. Not to be missed is Footdee, or ‘Fittie’ as it is known by the locals, a charming 19th century fishing community – tiny toy-like houses all face inward in squares to protect against the often feisty sea just metres away. It’s not surprising the locals like a warming whisky.

But it’s not all about the city. If you can tear yourself away from foodie-heaven, the array of real ale and cocktail bars, music venues, state of the art shopping centre Union Square or array of quaint independent stores at Rosemount, you can head out to Royal Deeside and the Highlands.

It’s Royal because it is home to the Queen, and other members of her family, three months of the year when she is in residence at Balmoral. She once wrote, ‘Every year my heart becomes fixed upon this dear paradise’ and it is not hard to see why. Away from the grandeur of the house itself, the surrounding landscape is stunning and nestled right on the edge of the estate is the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Famous for its single malt and, astonishingly, run by just six staff, it offers tours which we took advantage of.

We learn how their whisky is produced step by step before testing a wee dram (it would be rude not to). A tad merrier we enjoyed lunch at the highly popular, ethically run Buchanons Bistro, where everything is made in house, from bread to pickles.Shopping again and this time our festive Scottish fix at the Exclusively Highlands Christmas Fair, inside the cute and winding Crathes Castle. Really a one-off experience as you shop crafts goods and foods while exploring the historic building.

Our final treat to make sure we enjoyed a fully festive experience – The Royal Deeside Railway where diesel and steam ‘Santa Special’ trains run every Saturday and Sunday from November 29. Entirely run by volunteers, here the children can meet Santa and grown-ups can an enjoy a mince pie.

I don’t know about you but I’m feeling pretty festive. A fabulous experience.

This review first appeared in the Lancaster Guardian. Click HERE