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Staycation: touring Scotland by motorcycle

Scotland is a favourite with motorcyclists from across Europe - but does the reality match the expectation?

Thailand-based Swiss tourer Philip Baechtold tells Garry Scott about dodging rain clouds and making friends on his 10-day tour.

I have lived in Bangkok for 30 years. Apart from 100,000km of riding across Thailand I have toured all four major islands of Japan, and the USA. I had been to Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s and remembered rugged landscapes, windy weather and friendly people, and saw a chance to reconnect.

Glasgow is over 1000km from Zurich, so the distance I covered between April 5, when I started, until April 22, when I returned, was 5101km (3169m). The journey took me through Germany, the Netherlands, across the North Sea by ferry to Hull, then north. I was riding a Honda Goldwing 1500 and wore a Rev'It multi-layered riding suit. I had used this gear in the US so I knew I would hold up in climatic conditions that ranged between +40c and -2c.

My route was a zig-zag over to Berwick-upon-Tweed, around Edinburgh, up to Perth and then west on the A85 to Oban, around Mull. Then onto a rainy Fort William, through Glen Coe in bad weather and along Loch Tay to sunny Pitlochry, into Loch Rannoch and, when the rain hit, back into the Cairngorms and north to Inverness.

The coldest, rainiest and most unpleasant day took me through Strath Oykel to Ullapool. The reward came the next day when I found fantastic weather around Wester Ross, in Glen Torridon, on to Applecross, over the mountains to Loch Kishorn and to Kyle of Lochalsh. On day 10 I finished my tour in Glasgow.

The weather was a big challenge but the constant and wet westerlies were a blessing in disguise as they carried warmer weather and despite forcing me east in search of blue skies they allowed me to continue my ride without disruption. On occasions they even brought beautiful sunshine, especially the day I rode around spectacular Wester Ross.

The gusts of wind I experienced on the Lecht were among the strongest I've seen, save for extremely dangerous side-winds on the trans-ocean highway between Osaka and Kobe, in Japan. The Scottish winds at times were so strong that they nearly blew me and my 800 pound (362kg) Goldwing over near Tomintoul.

Except for the two-hour abominably wet ride through Glen Oykel and south to Ullapool the rains were mostly light. Even so, the bad weather made me feel weary, but my spirits were soon lifted in The Seaforth Inn and at the bar of the Ferry Boat Inn. It is amazing how difficult conditions can grind you down even if it's only a couple of hours.

I'll readily concede that Glen Coe is the most stunning scenery, but it is also so popular that the constant flow of vehicles dispels some of the awe. Thus it is the remote and sparsely frequented Glen Torridon (A896) that stands out as my highlight: a single-track road with passing-points that meanders through a wilderness with scenic lochs, snow-covered peaks, hills overgrown by heather, and patches of forests interspersed with rocks and cliffs. As you round the cape the view opens up over the Sound with Skye in the distance. It was one of my trip's great wow! moments when the tall peaks - to me the Scottish Alps - come into view near Cuaig, only to be followed by another wow! a short while later when you come upon the switchbacks in the mountains between Applecross and Loch Kishorn. This section, around Loch Broom, Gruinard Bay, Wester Ross, and through Glen Torridon was a riding day that is on par with the best I have seen.

The best days were like a dream, the miles through glens like meditation, the turquoise oceans like scenes from a Visconti film. Though shorter than my great rides around Japan and the USA, Scotland ranks at the top. That includes the Japan Alps, and in the US, Utah's great canyon lands, and the lonely ride on US50 through Nevada and the Desatoya wilderness.

Scotland is beautiful. It combines long stretches of amazing wilderness like Glen Torridon, imposing mountain landscapes like Glen Coe and alpine panoramas like Skye, that interchange with the most picturesque coastlines. The roads were definitely more interesting than I had expected, especially the single-track roads through Torridon, Glen Orchy and on Mull. I'd probably have preferred riding a BMW GS Adventure or an RT, though the Goldwing did the job without any problems.

On smaller roads riders must keep a keen eye on the road surface, as there are sections with gravel but the tricky sections are few and far between, and as long as one stays on paved roads, the risks are minimal. My scariest moment occurred near Laide. I was dreaming my way along the awesome coast when out of nowhere a sheep jumped in front of my bike. I was going at 50mph and missed it by a split second. An animal strike would have ended the fun and caused serious damage to beast, man and machine.

People in Scotland are friendly, sociable and joyful, and one is never alone for more than a few moments. On more than one occasion motorcyclists pulled up when I had stopped to take a picture and asked whether I needed any help. It's great to know that on a motorcycle one is never alone.

Follow Philip Baechtold @voxscorpio

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