Visit the Isle of Skye in August and it feels as if half the planet has traveled there with you.
Like much of Northern Scotland, its wild, fierce landscapes, whisky distilleries and windswept castles lure in tourists by the bus- and Boeing-load. Roads fill with campervans. Hotels get booked up. Most have more chance of spotting the Loch Ness monster than nabbing a walk-in space at a restaurant.
But what if you could have the same stunning highland, lowland and coastal landscapes, the same amiable hospitality, and the same high-quality food and drink – but without visitor numbers bigger than the population of Puerto Rico hovering around at every site?
Well, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland’s southernmost region promises just that. Travel off-season and you’ll have the chance to experience the hikes, drives and bike rides through its near-empty trails and roads too. Here’s why you should go.
It’s gorgeous – even off-season
Located north of England’s Lake District and hanging over the Isle of Man, the scenery in Southwest Scotland is astounding, even out of summer. In fall, as the leaves start to turn, you’ll see explosions of orange, red and yellow as you ride your bike through Galloway Forest Park or trek along the Southern Upland Way, a 214-mile cross-country hike from Portpatrick on the west coast to Cockburnspath on the east.
The grounds at the 17th-century tower house Castle Kennedy are spectacular year-round, whilst the peak of Merrick, Southern Scotland’s highest summit, is often white-capped and misty out of season.
When the night skies are clear you will have great views of the constellations above through your breath’s vapor, too. Head to Galloway International Dark Sky Park, the fourth area in the world to be specially recognized for its sublime stargazing opportunities.
The food is ideal for those cold, brisk days
Scottish food and drink are hearty and warming – perfect for chilly weather. It’s not just single malts and haggis or deep-fried-anything in Scotland. Along the coast, the seafood is excellent, particularly shellfish and scallops. Stranraer bay is home to Scotland’s last wild and native oyster beds, and the annual Stranraer Oyster Festival is one of the peaks of the regional calendar.
Scotland also has some delicious specialty baked goods worth keeping an eye out for, such as shortbread, bannocks (flatbread) and tattie (potato) scones. Definitely don’t leave without having a Scottish breakfast – fried eggs, some square sausage, sizzling bacon, hearty black pudding, fluffy tattie scones, butter-drenched toast, plump mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and a loch’s worth of baked beans. There’s nothing better to keep you going on a cold Scottish morning.
It’s connected by land, sea and air
Another plus for Dumfries and Galloway is its year-round accessibility. There are direct ferries from Ireland, which is good news for those trying to fly less. Ferries from Belfast dock at Cairnryan, a great jumping-off point for exploring this southwestern region. The port is right beside Portpatrick, the starting spot for the Southern Upland Way. Whether you’re taking on the whole thing or just attempting one section, you don’t want to miss out on the first part from Portpatrick to Stranraer.
Glasgow and Edinburgh both have international airports and are a short drive away. Trains and buses are also available from the rest of the UK with the main Edinburgh to London rail route stopping at Lockerbie. There are also railway stations at Annan, Dumfries, Gretna, Kirkconnel, Sanquhar, and Stranraer.
Where to eat
Lively inns, stylish cafes, and elegant restaurants are easy to find in Dumfries and Galloway. They’ll offer top-quality fare to fuel your adventures, too. Henrys Bay House, which overlooks Loch Ryan in Stranraer, is a seafood restaurant with two heated dining bubble-domes on the lawn, allowing diners to enjoy the view year-round. Dig into their scallops, in a vermouth and mushroom sauce with mashed potato, while dusk settles over the bay.
For heartier fare, the Crown Hotel in Newton Stewart does a good line of high-quality pub grub (with local produce) and a strong selection of beers. Their steak and ale pie is excellent, with a thick crust, tender meat and rich gravy. It is just what you need after a day outdoors in the fall chill. Honorable mentions also go to Blackaddie House in Sanquhar and The Back Street in Dumfries.
Where to drink
The Scottish Lowlands has a couple of great whisky distilleries such as the Annandale Distillery near the English border. Bladnoch Distillery, south of Newtown Stewart, also produces several single malts on its 50-acre estate. It has been a fixture of the area for some 200 years and offers tours.
If you tire of whisky, the new Dark Art Distillery in Kirkcudbright uses Galloway Forest Park as its inspiration for its luxurious gins. It also offers tours with tastings. There are several cozy spots in the area too: the Crown Hotel in Portpatrick is a small, lively and warm pub; whilst the Fig and Olive in Stranraer does good coffee and freshly made sandwiches.
Where to stay
Dumfries and Galloway has plenty of places to stay that will suit most budgets. For high-end comfort and service, Blackaddie House in Sanquhar or the North West Castle Hotel in Stranraer are both excellent options. For a cozy inn, the Crown Hotel Portpatrick is a great choice, with a lively bar downstairs and well-appointed, clean and quiet rooms upstairs.
For those who like to enjoy the outdoors while retaining some home comforts, Gorsebank Glamping Village has glamping pods, cabins and bothies. They’ve also got bikes and segways for hire, and offer coarse and trout fishing. If you’re hiking the Southern Upland Way, there are several bothies (simple free shelters in remote spaces) along the trail to sleep in, too.
Amy Lynch traveled to Scotland at the invitation of South of Scotland Destination Alliance as part of the Scotland Starts Here campaign. Lonely Planet staff members do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.