We’ve heard of the North Coast 500, but the North East 250?? Writer and Scottish Resident Andrew Martin was let loose on his home turf in our 500SL to find out…
Guest Post, Written by Andrew Martin
The NORTHEAST250 is creation of Guy MacPherson-Grant, he owns Ballindalloch Castle, so, yes, there’s a bit of self interest in creating a route that can bring more tourists to his front door, but there’s more to it than that. Interviewing Guy he talks about a “do-able” route that is not too long. He proclaims that 500 miles is too long, and maybe the famous NC500 less geographically accessible? Certainly, he wanted to create the opportunity for an adventure for couples and families that offered a broad appeal. And it does. There are castles, whisky distilleries and museums all linked up with some great SL driving roads.
Asking why you, friends of the SL SHOP, should undertake the NE250, Guy answers “It’s quality: luxury accommodation, scenery that takes in coastline, moorland and hills, and you do get away from it all”.
Right, time to buckle up, and for us to be your NE250 guides. Driving to Scotland is a pain. The soulless M6, followed by the soulless M74, then Scotland’s M80 and A9 roads which feature average speed cameras… and they love photographing our cars. From Stratford to the starting point of Braemar and the ski slopes at Glenshee is just a shade over 7 hours driving, but stick with it, as once past Perth the roads get quieter, more varied, and fun.
You can start from several points but coming from the south Braemar is an ideal start and finish point. From here a clockwise tour is recommended.
Leave Braemar and head east to Balmoral. You can take in the royal castle now, or on the return loop. You will see Crathie church which is featured in the news bulletins every summer as Mrs Queen and family go to pray. If you like walking, the Cairns of Balmoral walk isn’t too difficult, and very interesting. Park at the Visitor Centre and set off from there. The cairns (man-made stone structures) were created by Queen Victoria to commemorate her family. Even if you don’t do the walk, you can see Prince Albert’s cairn from the road, as it’s a pyramid!
The road from Crathie heading north features some great roads. You’ll see the SL taking the Gairnshiel Bridge with it’s blind summit. Here’s a tip, get up early and enjoy this road when it’s quiet. Then after the challenging “snow road” past the Lecht ski centre you turn right just before Tomintoul to enter whisky country. Take your pick: The Glenlivet. Glenfarclas, Cragganmore, Cardhu and many more iconic brands are all here. Forget any other peaty whisky producing region, this is the good stuff; like a Mercedes 600 Pullman compared to, well, anything else. No matter which distillery you chose for your “nosing” of “tasting” you will be well looked after and well informed on the art of whisky production. Don’t worry if you’re the driver, you get a miniature to take away and enjoy later.
While in whisky country you should drop in past Guy’s place at Ballindalloch. That is him and your writer pictured outside the castle looking for the road back to the NE250. This castle and gardens deserves a visit as it a family home and feels special. Other castles along the route that are worth a pit-stop are the ruins at Dunnottar and/or Slains (this castle is famous because it was a place where Bram Stoker was entertained and it is believed the castle is the inspiration for the setting of his Count Dracula tale. Fans of the series The Crown will also recognise Slains Castle, as in Season 1 the castle stood in for Castle Mey when the Queen Mother goes to Scotland), And if you’ve got your National Trust cards, then take in either Drum or Crathes castle (these are located near each other on the road return loop to Braemar from Aberdeen), and consider Duff House by Banff on top coast too.
After leaving whisky country and Ballindalloch you head north to Spey Bay and then along the top coast. Moving left to right on the map, Spey Bay has an outpost for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, with a visitor centre and an ice-house on the shore line. For foodies (people who like food) the NE250 offers some of the best eateries in Scotland and travelling from Buckie to Macduff stop off at some hostelry or café and enjoy the freshest of fish.
You need to drive down the steep incline to visit the village of Pennan. It’s worth a visit on it’s own merits, but some of you will remember Pennan from the film Local Hero? Park up beside the iconic red telephone box, we did.
As in Monopoly you now need to go to jail, directly to jail. Peterhead Prison that is. This is a must do high quality experience. The label museum under sells the attraction. It connects you with the reality of prison life; the characters that lived and worked here, and the social history of the roof top riots during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
From here arguably the road to Aberdeen, featuring the new by-pass, is the least fun. You do pass the The Donald’s golf course, and to be fair it is world class. However, along the route there are a variety of golf clubs. These all have something to commend them. Braemar, for example is the UK’s highest golf course – it sits at around 1,200 feet above sea level, then, Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, the sixth oldest club in the world is recognised as having one of the finest outgoing nine holes, while Deeside Golf Course is quoted in The Times as one of the finest parkland courses in the country.
The return road to Braemar from Aberdeen takes you along Royal Deeside (you follow the river Dee) which is the scenic and well surfaced A93 passing both Crathes and Drum castles. But everyone likes this road, so look out for fast moving motorbikes, campervans and bemused Sunday drivers in Peugeots. If you can avoid this leg on Saturday or Sunday do so as it will be busy. Now, there are two transport museums on the NE250 route: Moray Motor Museum in Elgin and Grampian Transport Museum (GTM) at Alford. The advice would be to detour and take in GTM on the return run giving you a break from the busy A93. GTM is Guy Martin’s favourite museum so look out for a few of his own possessions on show.
There is a range of accommodation given in the NE250 web site, all worthy inclusions. For SL SHOP friends, remembering you are high rollers, two hotels are offered for your consideration. Both are award winning, and both offer a unique Scottish experience. In Braemar there is the Fife Arms. This hotel has been named as The Sunday Times Hotel of the Year 2019 and features artwork sourced by Iwan and Manuela Wirth. There’s nothing like it. Spreading across the ceiling of the drawing room, for example, is Zhang Enli’s ‘Ancient Quartz’ (2018) takes its inspiration from cross-sections of Scottish agates, whose deceptively simple exteriors conceal a dazzling array of colour and texture.
Meldrum House is at the opposite end of the route and has won more awards regionally and nationally than any other hotel. It is a castle as opposed to the reincarnation of a Highland Shooting Lodge of the Fife. Meldrum House offers a choice of fabulous bedrooms (new or old design) serves consistently high-quality food and has a whisky cave. To make the most of the NE250 why not stay a few nights in each of these hotels and explore from there.
There you have it. Your own touring route curated by us at the SL SHOP. You have got the car. You have got a chosen companion.
Now follow in our wheel tracks!
Have you got an SL Adventure planned, or have you been on one before? We’d love to hear all about it. Send your words and photos to Joe.