Situated on the east coast of Scotland, you may have heard about Aberdeen as the Energy Capital of Europe. Certainly, when you fly into Aberdeen Airport, there’s evidence of the North Sea oil and gas industry everywhere – including tankers anchored out in the ocean and an abundance of helicopters landing and taking off.
But it’s not all about business. Fast becoming ‘Scotland’s weekend city’, savvy travellers are realising that weekend stays in Aberdeen can represent excellent value once the workers and business trippers have gone home. The investment in the city is huge – new hotels are being constructed all around, a new conference centre is being built and future harbour developments will soon see cruise ships arriving. So what is there for the weekend visitor?
Gateway to Aberdeenshire
Hire a car and Aberdeenshire is your oyster. The wider region has so much to offer that you’ll want to stay longer than a couple of days. There are around 300 castles in the city and Shire alone, not to mention rolling hills, miles of fields, rugged countryside and salmon-rich rivers. Whether you want to put on your walking boots and explore, or retreat to a country house and enjoy local delicacies by the fireplace, you can do it all here.
It was out in the Shire that we found the Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Glen Geery’) distillery in the market town of Oldmeldrum. It’s Scotland’s most easterly distillery and produces hearty Highland malts. Let me be honest here; I knew very little about whisky before my visit and found it hard to taste anything other than, well… whisky. The distillery was built in 1797 from local granite, when two brothers set out to make beer and whisky. They soon discovered which was more profitable and Glen Garioch now produces 1,600 litres of new spirit every day; produced in small batches by a team of just six distillers. The tour was fascinating and I may even be converted after sampling a wee dram – and being shown how to taste it properly by Glen Garioch’s expert team.
If whisky is your thing, there are a number of trails that you can follow across the north of Scotland. Or why not attend one of the many whisky festivals in the region? And if you’re willing to travel a little further, the nearby whisky region of Speyside is home to a hotel bar stocked with over 1,000 whiskies (overnight stay recommended!).
Also in the town of Oldmeldrum is the stunning Meldrum House, where we stopped for lunch. The friendly team were clearly elated after just winning AA Hotel of the Year in Scotland and it’s very well deserved. The manor was built in 1236 and is furnished in a warm country house style – complete with a Whisky Cave. If you’re simply stopping for something to eat you can dine in the à la carte restaurant, or the lounge for more casual bites and afternoon tea. Golfers will love the hotel’s 7,000-yard parkland course and you can book a break to include other world-class courses during your stay, while residing in one of Meldrum’s 4 Gold Star characterful bedrooms or suites.
On the subject of golf, no feature on Aberdeenshire would be complete without a mention of Trump International Golf Links, Scotland. The challenging course, designed by veteran designer Martin Hawtree, has a backdrop of rugged coastline and is set among ancient, grass-spiked sand dunes. The tranquil atmosphere here was a surprise; with around 100 golfers playing the same time, it felt satisfyingly private. You can also stay here at MacLeod House & Lodge – Trump’s very own Scottish Baronial mansion. Furnished by the man himself, no expense has been spared – expect Swarovski chandeliers in the dining room and silk bedspreads, Bose sound systems and 48 inch TVs in each bedroom.
With only enough time to visit one of the Shire’s 300 castles, we choose Crathes Castle – a beautiful 16th century fortified family home and one of the National Trust for Scotland’s properties. Tour the tower house to see the original painted ceilings, hear tales of ghosts, find out how intruders were foiled and admire the curios and period furniture. The estate is something to behold, with some of the finest gardens in Scotland and waymarked trails to explore. The more active may wish to have a treetop adventure at Go Ape, within the castle’s grounds.
Aberdeen City life
If you’d rather leave the driving behind for a weekend, you can do plenty on foot in Aberdeen city centre. On every turn there’s stunning architecture; the striking granite churches, libraries, town halls, civic buildings and universities make the city a pleasure around which to wander. The shopping is superb and there are a number of attractions in walking distance. We stayed in the perfectly placed Thistle Aberdeen City Centre, also known as The Caledonian and hit the streets.
Old Aberdeen is a particular treat. With its cobbled streets and iconic buildings, it’s home to one of Scotland’s oldest universities (founded in 1495). Take a walk to see Kings College Chapel and its eye-catching Crown Tower. Even the newer buildings in the campus have been built to complement the originals down to the gables, Gothic-style decorations and masonry.
Head to the village of Footdee (known locally as ‘Fittie’) and explore this quirky gem. Right on the harbour’s edge, this fishing village has roots back to Medieval times. The doors to all the houses point inwards to protect them from the North Sea winds but folklore also suggests that this is also to ward off evil spirits and the witches that caused shipwrecks. From here you can step on to the beach and explore.
I must admit, I didn’t expect Aberdeen to have a beach, let alone 23 miles of golden, uninterrupted sand. It’s popular with surfers, kayakers, cyclists, walkers and kite buggy riders but with so much space, it still feels un-crowded and unspoilt. It’s definitely worth blowing away the cobwebs here.
For a bit of evening entertainment, Union Street stretches across the city for a mile and around here you’ll find lively bars, nightclubs and decent restaurants – some of which have been converted from beautiful churches and civic buildings. We found dining in Aberdeen a delight and incredible value. Our first evening meal was at Fusion Bar + Bistro, a modern restaurant offering contemporary dining and champagne bar. I sampled some excellent wood pigeon, followed by wild mountain hare, deliciously paired with seasonal veg and quirky twists. Moonfish Café also came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint. In the Merchant Quarter of the city, it overlooks the 12th century St Nicholas Church. The promise of an extensive gin list brought us in but the imaginative dishes, with swatches of flavour, were divine and the service was impeccable too.