The flight-free affordable adventure with Northern Lights, pine forests cabins

The East Coast Main Line, which snakes up past fens, hills, historic cities and deserted beaches, is a beautiful journey, particularly on the stretch north of Newcastle: suddenly, the landscape drops away to reveal – if you’re lucky with the weather – golden dunes and the sparkling blue sea. It’s tempting to stop here, exploring the wild and deserted beaches of Northumberland. But push on for another three or so hours and you will arrive in a world of wild, hidden treasures.

Aberdeenshire is popular with day-trippers and overnight Scottish visitors drawn to the coastal and highland landscapes, the food and drink, and castles. It’s a corner of north-eastern Scotland where you’ll find startlingly dramatic landscapes that range from historic harbours to sprawling forest and stone city.

If you’re anything like me, you may associate the city of Aberdeen most with the much-mythologised second offices of JLB Credit, where Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) works in Peep Show – here, it is a sort of financial promised land. This is to say it’s not known for its romance: imposing and grey, the “Granite City”, which built its reputation on the export of the local rock, is now a thriving centre for the energy industry (once oil and gas, but increasingly renewable).

Yet even ignoring for a moment the city’s highlights – we’ll come on to those later – it is the capital of a region that comprises a good slice of the Cairngorms National Park, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the UK (and its largest national park), which is less than an hour’s drive from the city. There are also 165 miles of outstanding coastline where the night sky has been frisky with spectacular displays of the Northern Lights in the past weeks.

With its long walks, distinctive wildlife and up-and-coming food scene, Aberdeenshire is the perfect, budget-friendly destination for an outdoorsy autumn escape.

To embrace the onset of autumn, Cairngorm Bothies is a good base. The six small, wooden huts are set deep in woodland on the eastern outskirts of the national park not far from the castles of Royal Deeside. An hour’s drive from Aberdeen, a journey on which deciduous forests turn to pine, the simple but comfortable cabins sleep either two or four, and have a wood fire for cooking, a bathroom and a terrace, where there’s a stand if you want to bring a barbecue. Once I turned off the road onto the dirt track approach, the most noise I heard was the hoot of an owl – even the sound of my shoes on the springy, mossy floor seemed loud.

The cairngorms national park. Image via Visit Scotland
The cairngorms national park is one of the wildest parts of the UK
(Photo: Visit Scotland/Jakub Iwanicki/The Cairngorms National Park)

A short drive south is Ballater, a Victorian village on the River Dee that’s a visitor springboard for Balmoral, upstream. From the village’s Bike Station, you can hire bikes and cycle the old railway track tracing the river, and then loop north around Loch Kinord to find its ornate Pictish stone cross or even sun-basking adders.

A couple of miles down the railway track I came across the Milk Hoose, a café run by the independent family cheese company Cambus O’May. It makes delicious, nutty, semi-hard cheese and serves it in comforting, crispy toasties. Another notable stop was Orka Café in Ballater, where the flat white was excellent.

Not far from Loch Kinord, at Burn O’Vat – a natural, glacial pothole some 60ft wide by 40ft high – I gazed up at the cascading waterfall through glistening foliage. Circular walks that pass this geological oddity are plentiful, including some that take in the Muir of Dinnet nature reserve where you might see frogs, birds and damselflies among the tranquil pools and birch woods.

The scenery gets more majestic at Glen Tanar estate and National Nature Reserve, where walkers will find Scotland’s third-largest native Caledonian pine wood, heather-carpeted moorland and opportunities to spot deer and the odd red squirrel or golden eagle. After a day of being exposed to the elements here, dinner at Aboyne’s cosy, 18th-century Boat Inn – potted crayfish and local beers – was welcome.

It’s worth spending time in Aberdeen before returning home. On the way, I visited Crathes Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property where sweeping grounds and beautiful gardens still adhere to horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll’s 100-year-old designs.

Image via Visit Scotland
Street art in Aberdeenshire (Photo: Visit Scotland)

In the city, I set off on a self-guided art tour of Aberdeen’s phenomenal street art, which has evolved from a collaboration with Norway’s Nuart street art festival in 2017. Previously grey or run-down parts of the city have been transformed by murals such as Helen Bur’s multi-storey work depicting family unit Hugo and Ally; and Jan Vormann, who “repairs” damaged masonry with colourful Lego bricks. Ten new works are taking shape this year, by artists including Brooklyn’s Swoon. The late Jamie Reid – whose first Sex Pistols artwork was printed here – was also due to take part.

Aberdeen has exciting places to eat too: particularly good is Foodstory, a vegan café with filling salads and sandwiches where I hadn’t expected to find aubergine bacon. It seemed a fitting end to a short break packed with intrigue, nature and adventure that had left me feeling healthy, energetic and buzzing for more.

Getting there

Aberdeen is on the East Coast Main Line, served by LNER and ScotRail trains.

Staying there

Cairngorm Bothies Cairngorm National Park Scotland Picture supplied by
Cairngorm Bothies
in the National Park
(Photo: Gallery Canva)

Rates at Cairngorm Bothies start at £100 per night,

Where to visit

Glen Tanar Estate,

Nuart street art, Aberdeen:

More information

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