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Walking with monsters

ON the penultimate, and most challenging, stretch of the Great Glen Way we are hit with a problem.

A stunning view over Loch Ness
A stunning view over Loch Ness

After six miles uphill we are desperate for a break but there is nowhere to rest our legs.

A cheery-looking pensioner has nabbed a timber stack to enjoy his flask of tea and has spread his picnic around to claim ownership of the makeshift seat.

We are certain, however, that a better alternative is just ahead, as there are stone carved seats dotted along the route. There is just one obstacle. The French couple who have passed us intermittently are ahead. There is nothing else for it. We accelerate past them, head down with the shame of it. Sure enough, we soon spot a seat with spectacular views of Loch Ness. I keep my eyes firmly on monster watch as they pass.

There must be no better antidote to city life than a walking holiday, where the main stress of the day is finding a pew with a view.

Shorter and less challenging than the West Highland Way (WHW), the Great Glen runs 73 miles from Fort William to Inverness and was opened in 2002. It is normally covered in 4-6 days and is in general on easy terrain, mainly following canal towpaths and woodland paths.

As with the WHW, May and September are the most popular months for travel, weather and midge-wise.

The first thing you notice is how much more remote it is than the WHW. It wouldn't be unusual to walk a day without coming into contact with another soul.

We have chosen to go with Sherpa Expeditions, which arranges all your accommodation in high-end B&Bs as well as bag transfer each day. Call me a lightweight, but I just can't see the appeal of lugging a heavy rucksack around.

After a comfortable stay in the Guisachan House in Fort William and a lively night in the Crofter bar watching Andy Murray's US Open triumph, we begin our first walk of the six-day trek.

The Way begins opposite a Morrison's supermarket but don't be put off by this unremarkable start. The route takes three miles to leave Fort William, meandering around the banks of Loch Linnhe through Caol and Corpach in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

We pause at Neptunes Staircase, the dramatic eight-lock flight at Banavie which raises the Caledonian Canal by 19m (62ft).

The 62-mile canal was conceived by the engineer Thomas Telford after he was asked by the government to look at measures to help the Highlands recover from the Clearances.

It's a fine, flat 10.5 mile walk to Gairlochy, with great views of the surrounding mountains.

Our stopping point for the night is three miles further on in the village of Spean Bridge. I must award this B&B five stars for hospitality – there is a plate of home-made scones waiting for us. Then again, I wouldn't expect anything less from my mother.

We leave bright and early for South Laggan, a lovely 13-mile walk that runs mainly alongside the banks of Loch Lochy.

The Way benefits from plentiful, and interesting, information points (and seats). For a slight diversion take in the waterfall used in the movie Rob Roy, near Clunes, where Liam Neeson's character escaped the redcoats.

Our stop for the night is the Forest Lodge B&B, which involves a hazardous, though mercifully short, walk along the busy A82.

It is fairly basic but the owners will helpfully drive you to a restaurant at the Great Glen Water Park.

The next day's hike takes us to Fort Augustus, the traditional stopping point for drivers and coach trips en route to Inverness. We are hit with heavy rain but thankfully the route is sheltered by ash, birch, elm and hazel woodland running parallel to Loch Oich.

Although the Way is still establishing itself, it is clearly providing a welcome boost for guest houses along the way. All but one of the B&Bs we stay in have No Vacancy signs in the window.

Our B&B in Fort Augustus, Caledonia House, serves up the biggest cooked breakfast I've ever seen. The village has an astonishing array of pubs serving home-cooked food, and it's worth a walk around the former abbey which has been turned into a leisure complex and flats.

Fort Augustus to Invermoriston (seven miles) involves a slightly steeper climb. It follows the shoreline of Loch Ness along steeply undulating forest tracks, sometimes high above the loch with splendid views.

The path then descends into Invermoriston, a pretty village with a craft shop, cafe and hotel, the Glenmoriston Arms, whose guests have included Charlie Chaplin and Princess Margaret. It is a stone's throw from our B&B for the night, Darroch View, which has Sky TV and a midge-guzzling machine on the veranda, which is ideal for al fresco drinks. The owner will also supply a superb packed lunch for £4.50.

The penultimate 14-mile stretch from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit is the steepest section, rising to 700 feet within a mile and later reaching 1000ft. It is also has the most varied scenery with a mixture of open stretches overlooking the loch and secluded forest trails. We spot some hardy cyclists battling their way to the top. Although it is possible for mountain bikers to pedal between the various trails, they are not promoted as a continuous route and are not suitable for road bikes.

Arriving in Drumnadrochit, a certain monster makes his presence felt. Even the most cynical sorts might leave with a "just maybe" in their head after a visit to the Loch Ness Visitor Centre.

Our stop for the night is Glenkirk, a beautifully converted church that has been transformed into a boutique B&B and, joy of joys, it has a bath.

After the rigours of the 14-mile walk we enjoy a well deserved fish supper in the Drumnadrochit Hotel, and head to the award winning Fiddler's whisky bar where my legs are anaesthetised by a rare cask Glenmorangie.

For those with any energy, it's worth making a short detour to Urquhart Castle, built around 1250, which was taken from the English by William Wallace during the Wars of Independence.

The last day, the lengthiest, is an 18-mile hike to the end point of Inverness.

It's a lovely varied walk with a mixture of farmland, exposed high moorland and woodland, leading to the grand setting of Inverness Castle.

We stop at Abriachan Eco Cafe, run by an enterprising couple, and settle for a pot of coffee which fuels us for the final stretch, a beautiful descent into the Highland capital.

Prices start at around £548 for seven nights B&B accommodation, baggage transfer, guide book and maps.

www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk

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