As I was whisked away in a taxi from Aberdeen airport, the female driver asked me in her soft Scottish lilt if it was the first time I had been to Aberdeen. I had to admit it was, in fact, I had to confess it was the first time I had been to Scotland. Although, I had wanted to go to the highlands for as long as I can remember, I had never actually made it. Finally, I was there on a weekend break, and I looked out of the window as the grey granite brick and slate-roofed homes and buildings flashed by. No wonder Aberdeen is called The Granite City.

We turned into Queens Road where the Victorian granite buildings became large, majestic and double fronted. Once the area of the Scottish gentry, now the impressive properties are mainly private schools, financial business and hotels – and it was where my hotel was situated.

Malmaison is a boutique hotel, stylishly decorated with splashes of tartan here and there so that you get the feel of being in north of the border. It's just a 20-minute brisk walk to Union Street - the hub of the city's life with cafes, bars and shops.

There are two exports Scotland pride's itself on - its beef and its whisky - and this hotel revels in both. I went down to the restaurant for dinner which not only has a glass view looking into the kitchen but also the cold room where huge racks of red meat hang in all their splendour.

With Scotland being synonymous with the malt drink and the hotel being a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it offers a special Whisky Masterclass for its guests which takes place in the appropriately named whisky snug. Here there are shelves upon shelves of bottles of cask and single malt whiskies. I and my companions were invited to sit back and be expertly guided into the intricacies of this golden coloured drink. Never again shall I think whiskies are all the same, the variety of flavours are as complex as wines, and go from peaty, where you can actually taste the soil and earth in the drink, to spicy, fruity, flowery and even honeyed.

With so much knowledge about whisky under my palate, I went off to see how this drink was made the next day.

Before I arrived at the distillery, I stopped off at a farmers' market in a courtyard of the small town of Banchory. A small group of farmers from around the area stood under their rickety awnings selling organic pork, home-made jams, hand-made bread. A stall selling cheese caught my eye.After tasting a variety of his produce, I chose one, and was promptly told by the farmer the cheese was such a new recipe he hadn't given it a name yet. With my cheese-without-a-name in my bag, I set off to the distillery.

Royal Lochnagar Distillery lies in the shadow of Balmoral Castle. A local man, James Robertson, began distilling in Lochnagar in 1826, and it was visited by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria on their summer retreats. The distillery is now owned by Diageo, one of the largest spirit producers in the world, but the farm buildings have remained largely unchanged since the mid 1800s, and the distillery is still a firm favourite with the Royal family.

I took one of the tours around the distillery, and watched the malted barley grains go through the slow age-old process of malting and mashing which turns the grains into something called grist. It is then left to ferment for five day and finally carefully distilled. The whole process can take up to a week. It is finally transferred into casks and matured for 12 years. No wonder, I thought, whisky is so expensive.

The tour ended in a very civilised way, tasting a dram of the Lochnagar.

There are up to many distilleries in the Scotland - some are large and established as with Lochnagar but others are literally a one-man band as it is with Deeside Brewery in Dess run by James. He started making beer in his kitchen in his old croft house, the output was small, about 200 bottles, and he just supplied local shops and stores, but demand for his Macbeth beer grew and he had to give up his day job to concentrate on brewing, he produces 360 gallons of beer a year.

The whisky whet my appetite for a good lunch, and I went to Inver Hotel, an old coach house which nestles in the valley and the River Dee is just a stone's throw away which has the best salmon fishing in Scotland . It's a modest little place, run by a husband and wife team, the husband cooks in the kitchen and the wife warmly looks after the guests. It's a place where you can just kick off your walking boots or wellies and relax in front of the large crackling log fire and enjoy flicking through one of the books, newspapers or magazines piled high on the coffee table.

Whisky and good food might be a couple of attractions to draw you to Scotland but the jewel in the crown is the majestic area of Deeside. The view of the highlands with its jagged mountain range and hills covered in tall dark green pine trees is dramatic and breathtaking. The River Dee winds its way around the hills and valley running furiously like some wild thing and then at Brae Mor it rushes and splashes madly against the black slate rocks.

To wander deep into the highlands, I went on the Braemar Highland Safari. I travelled by 4x4 into the areas of the mountains, lochs and rivers which is normally beyond the reach of the average visitor. My guide knew every nook and crannie, and had lots of stories to tell as he drove the vehicle across the rough terrain. For a time the animals seemed to hide from us, but every so often we spotted a pheasant in the bracken, or red squirrel in the grass or a hare and rabbit scurrying away in the moss. Then, as we turned a corner, there high on the hill we saw the Monarch of the Glen standing proudly looking down on us. I jumped out the vehicle like an excited school child to take a closer look at the splendour of these regal-looking stags surrounded by their herd of 35 or so deer.

If you see another land rover passing you on the windy roads around the crown estate, it could very well be Prince Charles or even the Queen at the wheel. The Royal family retreat to the area from August to October. It is a holiday they have been doing since Queen Victoria’s time. It is no wonder they love this place, you feel as if the rest of the world is a million miles away.

As the sun dipped over the hills, I headed off to my hotel Darroch Learg which nestles in the tall pines in Ballater. The hotel, with its pretty floral decor, is warm and friendly. With all the pure fresh air I had breathed in on the highlands, when I retired to my room at the end of the day, I put my head on the pillow and fell asleep straight away.

Driving to the airport the next day, I wondered why it had taken me so long to come to Scotland. I know for sure, it won't be the only time and I shall return.



Aberdeen Telephone: 01224 327 370 Darroch Learg Telephone 013397 55443 Eat The Milton Telephone: 01330 844566

Inver Hotel Telephone: 01339 742 345


Deeside Brewery

Braemar Highland Safari Telephone: 01339 741 420 Royal

Lochnagar Distillery