Regular readers of these columns may perhaps be a bit surprised, or even confused, – after all, my name is associated with the luxury hotel barge the Saint Louis. Up until recently, that is! My wife and I finally decided to swallow the anchor, and we have handed over the barge to a team of people who have fewer years and more energy than we now have!
Moving on from one enterprise, even in our retirement years, does not mean that we should not apply ourselves to starting up another enterprise. In fact Barbara and I are now engaged in two new enterprises! In both cases, we are using and developing skills and abilities that had come to the fore when we were running the barge. For my part, I am now running a visitor-based tour firm in Scotland, called Highland Host. Barbara is heading towards a heightened level of professional cooking – she is enrolled on a three-month intensive course in Edinburgh, leading to becoming a Cordon Bleu chef. The aim is that she will become a ‘chef will travel’, cooking for short-term groups both in Scotland and overseas.
Let me explain the thought process behind returning to my native Scotland, and behind setting up Highland Host. For the last two or three years on the hotel barge in France I had the gradual realisation that the guided tours that I designed and led in France could in many ways be replicated in Scotland. Certainly there are some key differences. For example, we now visit distilleries instead of vineyards. We now provide accommodation along the way (in selected guest houses, hotels, and even castles) instead of the accommodation being on the barge. And we now have access to a huge expanse of glorious countryside, including islands, coastlines and high mountains, instead of the limited inland zone of the Garonne valley. Another difference is that we are now vehicle-based, instead of being barge-based – our cruising speed might now average 50 mph instead of 4 mph, and the range of countryside and visits that we can now see is of course very much greater.
There are many similarities between the tours that I organised from the barge, and those that I now lead. From the barge, my tours were individually designed, based on the wishes of the guests who were with us at the time. They were to places that I had researched and experienced, and in which I had built up background knowledge and interesting anecdotes. They were through rural countryside that I understood and could explain. They were often to places that the free traveller could never discover by himself. And, most importantly, they included contact with the people of the country, the characters who bring the place alive. These are some of the principal elements of a tour with Highland Host.
Although I have spent many years of my life working overseas, I have always maintained strong contacts in Scotland and I have always maintained a strong interest in the country. Perhaps this is the ideal background from which to design tours in Scotland – in some respects I see the country through the eyes of someone coming in from other parts of the world. I become excited by places and scenery that locals might take for granted.
The reader may be surprised at my choice of vehicle for this venture. It is neither a stretched limmo nor is it a minibus, it is a top-of-the-range Land Rover, and this provides the means to do what is an essential element of the Highland Host package. That is to say, we can access hill roads that are inaccessible to a normal road vehicle, and because of that we can travel through parts of the Highlands that are very rarely seen by visitors to Scotland. This is where my farming and estate management background comes in useful. Beyond that, the Land Rover is a classic and iconic vehicle that, more than any other, sits perfectly into the landscape of the country.
The list of things and places that we see and do with Highland Host is virtually endless. Certainly, we would often include a castle or two, and we might include some distillery visits. If at all possible, I would try to include some cultural elements including perhaps a visit to a Highland Games or to a traditional music event. Many of our guests have Scottish ancestry, and heritage visits can be woven into the tour. One thing that will always be included on every tour is some of the finest scenery in the world. In addition, the nature of the personalised tours is such that changes can be made as we go along – we can stop and chat with people, or we can stop to take photographs of something special that catches the eye, or we can divert to explore an unmarked road.
For a fuller list of all the options that are available, do have a look at our web site. (www.highland-host.com) You will become as excited at the range of possibilities as I am!
So much for the introduction and explanation. From now on, in successive blogs, I will of course be focussing on specific detailed elements of the wonders of Highland Scotland.
Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.