Over the past 6 months or so, I have fallen in love. Not with a person, though, but with a place. And that place is Scotland.
After spending a couple of weeks last summer exploring Scotland's major cities and experiencing the beauty of the Highlands, I knew I was in danger of developing strong feelings. And then I got invited back for a week around New Year's to take part in Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations. After that, it was all over.
I've got it bad for Scotland; the country is now in my list of “Top 5 Countries I Love the Most,” and a place I'm already dreaming of returning to soon.
I blame most of this on a tour I took in early August with a company called Haggis Adventures.
5 days. 22 international travelers. 1 sexy yellow bus. And the whole of the Scottish Highlands at our fingertips.
My “Highland Fling” tour was, hands-down, one of the best guided tours I've ever been on — and one of my most memorable travel experiences from last summer.
Because I loved it so much, I've decided it's time to tempt you into your own Scottish fling with Haggis this summer.
Why Haggis Adventures?
Haggis' tagline is “Local guides, legendary trips” — and this is very true. Based in Edinburgh, Haggis employs local guides who are enthusiastic, knowledgable, and incredibly in love with Scotland. Haggis is also all about FUN. Their yellow mini buses have things like “AWESOME” and “Wild & Sexy” scrawled across them, and their guides can often be found sporting kilts. When I was first poking around at ideas for what to do with my time in Scotland, it was Haggis' fun and funky attitude that caught my eye and got me interested.
Who will you travel with?
Haggis Adventures offers up both day trips (to places like Loch Ness) and multi-day tours. While you can find travelers of all types and ages on the day trips, the multi-day adventures definitely cater more towards younger budget travelers and backpackers. On my Highland Fling tour, ages ranged from early 20s to mid-30s, and the majority of the travelers were from Australia (I was the only one from Team USA in the group!).
My group gelled really well, with all of us up for just about anything, whether it was a whiskey distillery tour or an evening of ceilidh dancing. It's rare to happen upon such an amazing tour group when it's this size (there were 22 on my trip, though there can be up to 29), but it's safe to say we were all feeling the DSL (Deep Scottish Love) with Haggis.
Who is the guide?
Haggis employs some seriously, seriously awesome guides. I've had the pleasure of meeting quite a few of them by now, and they've all been fun, crazy, adventurous Scots with huge love for their country. My guide for this particular tour was Andy C, a hilarious fellow with a mischievous streak a mile wide. He had us ceilidh dancing, hiking to waterfalls, drinking whiskey, and playing fun bus games like “Hunt the Munter” and “Who's Next?”
When it comes to guided tours, the guide definitely makes or breaks the entire experience. In this case, Andy C definitely made the experience for us with his jokes, outgoing personality, and extensive knowledge of Scottish history. It also helped that he changed up our itinerary here and there to take us to some of HIS favorite spots in the Highlands, and never pressured us to go anywhere or do anything that came at an extra cost if we didn't want to. He even took our interests into account, pointing out things like Harry Potter locations even though he himself hates the movies.
How will you travel?
For all of Haggis' trips, guests travel in eco-friendly Mercedes Benz buses, which are painted bright yellow and emblazoned with Haggis' catchphrases. Most of the buses seat up to 29, meaning you won't be traveling on a massive coach with dozens of other people.
And, since you'll be traveling around Scotland, you won't have to worry about ever being on the bus for more than a couple of hours at a time. The country is too small for long-haul bus rides!
Where will you stay?
The price of a Haggis trip only includes the transportation and the guiding — it does not include the price of accommodation. Your accommodation can be booked through Haggis, however, and mostly includes small hostels (usually 4-bed rooms). Of course, you don't HAVE to book hostels with the rest of the group. If you'd rather look into hotels or B&Bs on your own, you are totally free to do so. Or you can do what I did, and request a private room and pay a bit more.
I would recommend just sticking with the group, however. It's easier to just stay where everyone else is staying, and the hostels Haggis chooses to work with are usually the best ones in each of the cities/towns you stop in. In fact, in a couple places we stayed on this particular tour (like Oban, Kyleakin, and Fort Augustus), the hostels we stayed in were some of the ONLY ones available.
Whatever you do, though, don't skip staying at Morag's Lodge in Fort Augustus. Operated by Haggis itself, this cozy hostel near Loch Ness is one of the most fun places I've ever stayed. They have an open kitchen, breakfast and dinner for purchase each night, comfortable rooms, and a little bar where there's always something going on at night. During my two nights there, we had a team pub quiz night, and a tartan toga party. Both were SO MUCH FUN.
What will you eat?
Just like with the accommodation, you're on your own when it comes to food on these tours, too. But, in many cases, you'll just be grabbing snacks and lunches at cafes you stop at along the way (bacon rolls, yum!) and then having dinner at the hostel's you're staying at. The meals I had at Saucy Mary's (Kyleakin hostel) and Morag's were all delicious, and not super expensive, either. Plus, it was nice not to have to go out and find food in these tiny towns.
Otherwise, ask your guide for suggestions. In Oban, for example, our guide recommended a delicious fish and chips place for us to try. You're in Scotland, though, so be sure to try three things: haggis, whiskey, and shortbread. And maybe a deep fried Mars bar, if you're brave.
What will you do?
Haggis' “Highland Fling” is just that — a brief relationship with Scotland's Highlands region. But damn, do you pack a lot into that fling!
Highlights of this tour included a stop at the William Wallace monument near Stirling, riding up a ski lift near Glencoe for some stunning views, touring Eilean Donan Castle, visiting a whiskey distillery, hunting for Nessie on a Loch Ness cruise, a night of ceilidh dancing in Oban, learning about Scottish history at Culloden Battlefield, and hiking to waterfalls and around pretty lakes. Most of these activities did cost extra, but the fee was usually a reasonable £5-£10.
This 5-day tour also included one day of driving around the stunning scenery of the Isle of Skye — probably my favorite place in Scotland!
And we planted trees, too! Haggis, like many good tour companies, keeps the environment and sustainable tourism in mind when guiding people around Scotland. The company was the first tour operator in Scotland to achieve a national Green Tourism Award, and actively supports eco-friendly charities such as The John Muir Trust and Trees For Life. Their partnership with Trees for Life includes helping to restore Scotland's native Caledonian Forest, and they do this by letting tour groups plant trees in the Haggis Grove. Definitely unique!
The only real downsides are the same ones that accompany any sort of organized group travel — you do sacrifice a bit of independence. If you fall in love with a place, you really can't choose to stay any longer without leaving the tour. If you hate your tourmates or guide, you are stuck with them for the whole trip. However, none of these downsides showed themselves on my Highland Fling trip. I loved my group, loved my guide, and loved the experience overall.
And, more importantly, I loved Scotland.
Would I recommend it?
If you've read this far, then I'm sure you've already figured out my answer: yes, yes, and YES. I would absolutely recommend this tour to anyone interested in exploring Scotland and having a great time while doing it.
Feel the DSL.
What do you think? Would you ever travel with Haggis?
*Note: I was a guest of Haggis Adventures on this tour, and also received discounts and/or free stays at some of the hostels up in the Highlands. As always, though, all opinions are my own.