At the end of May over Memorial Day weekend I set off to Scotland for the fist time. My 7 day 6 night journey included 1.5 days in Edinburgh, 1 day playing golf at St. Andrews Links in St. Andrews, and the main event: the 4 night 5 day Belmond Royal Scotsman “Scotland’s Classic Splendours” train journey.
Suffice to say that I fell in love with Scotland. It has it all, incredible untouched scenery in the highlands, unpredictable weather, friendly people with fine accents, surprisingly delicious and fresh food, of course whisky, golf, history, and culture. It is also a lot cheaper, friendlier, more welcoming than their southern neighbors in England (sorry to the English folk out there). I mean after visiting I am not surprised why Queen Victoria and Albert decided to build themselves a castle there. Even if you dont do a luxury overnight train journey through the highlands (but you really should), there are so many fantastic ways to see the beauty of Scotland. I highly recommend one add Scotland to their list of places to visit.
The Royal Scotsman
Belmond, formerly Orient Express, and now owned by LVMH, owns an extensive portfolio of trains, river cruises and hotels and they also help plan itineraries through the counrties in which they have properties and trains/ cruises. Perhaps the most famous train they run is the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, yes THE Orient Express. Some family hae done the Eastern and Orient Express in Asia, I’ve previously done a river cruise in Burma, the Hiram Bingham train to Machu Picchu, and stayed at a handful of hotels including Belmond das Cataratas Iguazu. As such when planning a belated mother’s day and annual mother/son trip we looked into another Belmond journey. With schedules and dates being a major factor we settled on Scotland but also because neither of us have been but we both love British history, royalty, the family is a golfing one and I love whisky. The train is a original pullman trains from the 1960s? or 80s? The train itself began running in the 80s I believe. The Royal Scotsman offers many journeys, including a whisky focused one, a whisky and golf one (I have my eyes set on that), and longer ones but the most common one is the Scotland’s Classic Splendours which gives a great taste of what Scotland has to offer. Some itineraries even cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct, commonly known as the Harry Potter Bridge as its featured in the films with the Hogwart’s Express. The great thing about these journeys is that Belmond arranges for excursions to occur at off-peak times or right at a site’s closing so you often get the entire place basically to yourself and the tours are all private and excellent.
The train departs and arrives back at Edinburgh Waverly station and check-in is done at the Balmoral Hotel. While the hotel isnt that great, even though its supposed to be the best in town, I would still recommend staying there before and after the train as it makes logistics easier and you can leave items you dont need during the train at the hotel.
Scotland’s Classic Splendours costs 5200 pounds per person for a twin/double accommodation. It is all-inclusive of all meals, tours, planned excursions and for me most importantly alcohol, all that top-shelf whisky aboard was included. Pretty much everything is covered and taken care of, the only thing you worry about paying for is tips, souvenirs and if you want to indulge on the onboard spa, the only spa aboard a train! It is quite a pricetag, but I certainly think it is absolutely worth it. The train itself is beautiful, cabins were roomier than I expected, the entire staff is professional, friendly and attentive, the food was incredible (even my mom who is hard to please with Western food, was blown away) and very large and filling portions, and of course wonderful selection of beverages. You wont ever go hungry on this journey, trust me.
Each journey has a host, they are essentially the tour guide for the entire journey and accompany all guests during meals, happy hours, excursions and what not and also assist with any needs as well. The host themselves are not Belmond staff, but rather contracted guides. There is also a train manager aboard who is like the hotel GM, and then the entire staff who seemingly do everything from serving meals, to cleaning cabins, to assisting you with any needs you have.
What to pack? Scotland’s weather, even in the summer, is all 4 seasons and is unpredictable. We had some rain, a lot of clouds and occasional sun. It is also a very windy place. The highlands can be very chilly. During the day, bring whats comfortable, especially comfortable walking shoes or boots. The only time there is a dress code is at dinner. There are informal (men: business casual with a jacket, women: nicer evening wear) and formal dinners (men: tuxedo, dark suit or rent a kilt!; women: formal dresses). There is a closet in the cabins and drawers for you to unpack all your belongings and they fit quite a bit. If your suitcase is at a maximum of 9 inches in heigh when laid flat and no longer than 27 inches, it can fit under the bed in the storage. Otherwise, fear not the cabin steward/ess can store your suitcase for you and they have a communal closet at the lobby to hang your larger coats and rain jackets. Slippers, bathrobe, hairdryer, toiletries and towels are all provided (no toothbrush or toothpaste or any of that extra stuff). If you want to rent a kilt, like I did and like really you should, Belmond works with Kinloch Anderson, you can fill out their measurement form at your nearest tailor or by yourself and then once they receive that and your payment your rental will await you in your cabin and you leave it there on departure, one less thing to worry about! They also provide everything, the shirt, socks, shoes and necessary accessories for a full formal Scottish kilt.
The itinerary is quite extensive, I will resort to just using my pictures to show the journey. Essentially the first day you board and the train goes off towards the highlands and you enjoy afternoon tea while meeting other guests and are shown to your room before its time for dinner. The next three days revolve around the same general schedule:
Pre-dinner h’orderves and beverages
Post-dinner desserts and liquors with local entertainment
Stable overnight at a station
On the final day, you have breakfast before the train journeys back to Edinburgh. If your itinerary requires or allows, Belmond can assist in arranging for you to disembark and depart from the final overnight station. We did this in order to maximize time in St. Andrews as it was closer to Dundee than Edinburgh.
The Train and Journey
At around noon guests start arriving at a banquet room in the Balmoral where tea, coffee, biscuits and juice are served as guests begin chatting and introducing themselves. Then by 1:15PM the host walks the group down to Waverly Station where you are then guided by a piper escorts the group to a fenced off platform and a red carpet awaits you to board the train (video below). Yes this is done in a public train station (some stations the train stops at are private historic stations funded by Train enthusiast preservationists), and yes all eyes and cameras suddenly turn to you. The train itself is famous and along the way many people do take photos of it as it is a classic pullman train. Once aboard you are offered a glass of champagne with snacks at the observation car before the train starts rolling away.
First night’s entertainment: a couple of lads singing Scottish folk songs and stories
Welcomed to Glamis Castle by a piper
Final night entertainment: musicians playing classic Scottish hymns and then dancing out on the platform of Dundee Station!
After our last breakfast at 7AM, we left the train and its wonderful staff and our lovely host Sandra to head off to St. Andrews.
If anything, this journey was mostly food and drinks! Between the wine pairings and the average of 3-5 glasses of whisky I had each day, I was also fairly drunk each night.
But truly an exceptional, magical and surreal bygone experience. One that I fully recommend, but if not, all the places we visited are open to the public for visits including the incredibly well managed and fantastical Ballindalloch Estate.
Slainte (cheers in Gaelic)!