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Living Travel: TAKING THE HIGH ROAD TO THE HIGHLANDS.

Byline: PAUL O'HARE

ON a clear day the view at the head of Loch Shiel takes your breath away.

The beauty of the rolling green hills fills you with wonderment while the stillness of the water creates a tranquillity that is something to behold.

The Lonely Planet guide to Scotland named this part of the Highlands the number-one must-see north of the border.

It has also been immortalised in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - and in real life the loch and the surrounding area certainly have a magic all of their own.

I travelled from the banks of Loch Lomond to a part of the world that I knew mainly from its starring role in historical epics such as Braveheart and Rob Roy.

The drive north up the A82 to Glencoe is one of the finest in Scotland and the seductive beauty of the scenery makes it difficult to keep your eyes on the road.

Approaching the glen, the road climbs to 1,200ft and then steeply descends as you travel through its heart.

It may sound more like a flight than a drive but the journey to the Ballachulish Hotel, about a mile from the village of the same name and near Fort William, is quite spectacular.

We spent two nights in one of the hotel's lavish Celebration rooms and its title was not an exaggeration.

The brochure invites guests, in the true traditions of the establishment, to 'become a modern Highland Chieftain'.

Everything about the suite is first class - from the stunning view out over Loch Linnhe to the little pantry stocked with tablet, shortbread and sloe liqueur. The spacious room was traditional and very homely, and came complete with a spa bath - a luxury that Highland chiefs were most undoubtedly denied.

The Celebration, at pounds 120 per night, is one of the 18th-century hotel's four categories of accommodation which start with Economy rooms at pounds 70 per night.

The price includes a five-course meal and full breakfast, both served in the intimate Leaping Salmon restaurant and truly exceptional in quality.

The focus of the dinner menu, changed daily, is traditional Scottish cuisine, featuring salmon and haddock and also Highland lamb and Aberdeen Angus steaks. Sweets include special delights such as home-made sticky toffee pudding and Highland berry cheesecake.

There is no dress code for the restaurant - where a lone piper occasionally makes an appearance - and the chef is ready to accommodate guests with special requirements.

Before dinner it is worth sampling a few drinks in the one of the hotel's two bars: the cosy cocktail bar or the Ferry Bar at the back which is a popular haunt for locals and doubles as a novelty cigarette lighter museum.

More than 200 different designs ranging from classic Zippos to guns and from comic characters to food surround the bar. The barman assured me: 'They all work.'

The perfect post-meal prescription is an hour or two relaxing in front of the large open fire in the main lounge or the old library. But beware - it is very easy to fall asleep!

The hotel's history and idyllic setting offer a perfect recipe for romance and it is tempting to spend your stay lounging around the hotel where even aromatherapy massages are on offer.

But that would mean missing out on so many other opportunities to have fun.

Active types can take advantage of nearby golf, cycling and watersports facilities, while guests at the Ballachulish Hotel also have complimentary access to leisure facilities at its nearby sister hotel, The Isles of Glencoe, where a swimming pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, exercise room and sunbed are all on offer.

But if you have a passion for exploring the great outdoors then Glencoe, which has some of the best climbing and walking terrain in Britain, is only a few miles from the hotel.

The majestic hills attract thousands of visitors every year and their beauty is awe-inspiring.

Back at ground level, the Clachaig Inn at the foot of Glencoe is a popular post-climbing haunt.

The no-frills bar attracts an international clientele and offers more than 120 malt whiskies.

The weekend drinking sessions, accompanied by live music, are legendary and many revellers party in their climbing gear.

Ballachulish is also well placed for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. The Nevis range is just seven miles north of Fort William and, set next to Ben Nevis, offers the highest skiing in Scotland.

The range has a reputation for enjoying good conditions late into the season, which runs from December to May. The highest run is 4,000ft while the longest is 2km.

But whatever your plans take a drive to Glenfinnan, around 30 miles from Ballachulish, where a statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie marks a spot of stunning natural beauty and commemorates his final defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The serenity is ideal for periods of reflection which can be interrupted by moments of simple pleasure such as skimming stones on the loch.

For those on a weekend break wishing simply to get away from it all, the area stretching from Glencoe to Glenfinnan offers a perfect Highland refuge.

TRAVEL FACTS

Paul O'Hare was a guest of Visit Scotland (0845 2255121 and infovisitscotland.com) which publishes the Romantic Scotland brochure including holidays and short breaks.

The Ballachulish Hotel, listed in the brochure, offers two-night breaks at pounds 140 per person, including dinner, bed and breakfast, and has special-rate breaks throughout the year available on 01855 821582 or online at www.freedomglen.co.uk

Contact the Glencoe visitor centre on 01855 811729 or 01855 811 307.

CAPTION(S):

SEDUCTIVE BEAUTY... the Glenfinnan monument at the head of Loch Shiel and a waterfall on the River Coe ON TRACK... a train steams across Glenfinnan Viaduct, not far from Ballachulish Hotel
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Apr 27, 2003
Words:967
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