48 hours in Aberdeenshire
Aberdeenshire’s Royal Deeside got its name when an enchanted tourist, Queen Victoria, bought a castle named Balmoral… Exploring the route and its spectacular nearby coastline, I find cute villages, a handsome distillery and artisan food producers. But first, I get partying in The Granite City.
Start your against-the-flow Deeside journey on the Aberdeen quays where river meets sea. There, The Silver Darling is a seafood restaurant named after a fishing boat anchored here before the industry moved up to Peterhead. Some of the many luminaries who’ve visited, from Sir Alex to Dame Judi, are pictured on the stairs. Wonders of the deep on our lunch visit included a fantastic cullen skink (house-smoked haddock soup), halibut with a leek sauce and tomato-crusted cod with sweetcorn salsa.
What to do in Aberdeen town
A night out in Aberdeen is a blast. Offshore workers, thirsty after weeks of monastic living, mingle with tourists and locals for a lively international atmosphere. The city has a pair of beer-and-burger bars owned by local breweries: Brew Dog, whose road to world domination began in nearby Fraserburgh, plus the multi-award-winning Fierce. There’s also Smoke & Soul, which majors on the Belgian-influenced brews of the Six ° North brewery in Stonehaven.
The most beguiling bar, though, is the 19th century Grill. Before you order a whisky, decide on a region so you don’t spend ages gawping at the huge collection in its grand walnut cabinets – the bar people will gladly help. Aberdeen does cocktails just as ably. The Tippling House is a welcoming cellar with comfy booths and complex creations such as Pandan Bleu – with flavours of the tropical plant along with pisco, coconut and yuzu – for under a tenner. For nibbles, order the spiced venison & haggis doughnuts.
The best bakes, cakes and coffees in Aberdeenshire
A city that parties needs good breakfast joints – and Aberdeen won’t let you down. In the well-to-do West End, Parx Cafe does a mean breakfast burrito and macchiato among calming pot plants in a foodie row that also includes the celebrated new modern-Scottish Amuse by Kevin Dalgleish.
The Thistle Street area is a good place to mooch on a Saturday morning. People queue for the sourdough loaves and cinnamon rolls at Bandit Bakery (51 Rose St), while vegan cafe Food Story is full of young, unfeasibly attractive brunching people. There are glazed posh cakes in Almondine patisserie but the macarons, in various flavours, are the brand leader.
Meeting Aberdeen’s food producers
“I’ve driven this road all my life and I’ll never get bored of it,” says Calum Lockerbie. He’s talking about the Deeside route, where “each season has its own beauty”. Calum runs food and drink tours with his company Bothies & Bannocks. He’ll introduce you to top food producers such as the Cambus O’May Cheese Co, which makes six superb cheddars using raw milk from Inverurie. The spores used to mature them are wild, from the Cairngorm Plateau’s flora and fauna (in other words, they open the window…).
You can also pop in on Aberdeenshire Highland Beef and stroke the famous ‘hairy coos’ as modern herder Grace Noble tells you about these extraordinary creatures’ hardy ways, before giving you a taste of the succulent 21-day-aged beef.
Aberdeenshire’s villages and a right royal distillery
A potter around the reassuringly tweedy village of Ballater is essential. Sheridan’s butchers is where the King and Queen buy their sausages – grab a chicken balmoral pie to take on a walk. Enjoy a Shorty’s ice cream – the butterscotch is a goodie – and buy homemade sweets such as ‘soor plums’ in Dee Valley Confectioners, which also sells Bee Cabin honey from a popular local hive. In the beautifully restored former railway station you can see Queen Victoria’s waiting room and replica royal carriage, then in the café have a cuppa and a slice of (what else?) victoria sponge.
The first tourists to visit Royal Lochnagar distillery were Queen Vic herself and family, after she’d bought the castle next door. On the fun and informative tour you get to gawp at the vintage copper stills before embarking on a flight of their single malts (light and fruity rather than peaty and smoky). You also see inside the storage sheds where Diageo stashes some of its rarest casks, which sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds – they’re here, so they say, because the security around Balmoral is rather good…
To pick up more Scottish booze for your suitcase, visit Strong Water Company in Banchory. Its interesting local brands include Esker gin and and Lost Loch’s innovative creations, such as whisky-barrel-aged absinthe. They encourage you to taste, too – go ahead, Calum is driving!
Finish your foodie odyssey in the bijou resort of Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen. The Seafood Bothy is a harbourside van where Maria Lewis sells the crab and lobster caught by her husband in delicious wraps, tacos, toasties and even a lobster & prawn mac and cheese. It’s a tough choice between the bothy and what must be the world’s greatest fish & chip shop: The Bay, where there’s always a queue.
A screen lists not just the Peterhead boats the MSC haddock and scampi came from, but also the farm where today’s potatoes were grown. If you have room, rival chipper The Carron is the birthplace of the infamous deep-fried Mars Bar (yes, we did and it was fantastic, like a Scottish all-in-one version of the Spanish treat chocolate con churros).
Things to do in Aberdeenshire
Small-batch distil your own gin at the excellent City of Aberdeen Distillery. Stop for a selfie on the Edwardian Cambus O’May suspension footbridge over the Dee, and ramble through the ferns to the ice-age crater of Burn O’Vat. In autumn or winter, stand on the bridge at the Falls of Feugh for a chance to spot leaping salmon. Make sure you walk or drive the coast south of Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle, perched on the rocks – its beauty will stay with you long after your trip.
Where to stay
• The Chester Hotel in Aberdeen’s West End is a sleek operation with modern rooms, a well-stocked whisky bar and a wide-ranging breakfast buffet. Doubles from £145 room-only.
• A stroll up the hill from Ballater, Darroch Learg is a charming 19th-century inn. Room 10 has stunning views towards the Cairngorms. There are highland beef, loch trout and other treats on the dinner menu and a hearty Scottish breakfast. Doubles from £210 B&B.
Les Dunn travelled with Visit Aberdeenshire.
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