My introduction to Aberdeenshire is from the water. I’ve driven from Edinburgh in the dark and as the sun comes up, I pull on a damp wetsuit and buoyancy aid. I’ve roped in my sister and a friend (similarly bleary eyed) and we follow our guide Dave Jacobs, owner of Stonehaven Paddleboarding, into the sea.

I have a few days to see as much of Aberdeenshire as I can and discover what this region, often overlooked by tourism, has to offer. Bordered by the Cairngorms to the west, Aberdeenshire, and its rivers the Don and the Dee, descend through fields and hills to the coast.

After a quick lesson we paddle out on our SUPs, following the line of rocks and cliffs, into caves where the distinctive ‘pudding stone’ rock of this coastline is adorned with spiky pink sea urchins. Cormorants dive for their breakfast and we keep watch for seals and dolphins. After an hour we reach the craggy cliffs below imposing Dunnottar Castle and Dave shows us the best view from within a cave. It’s an awesome sight.

HeraldScotland:

Our paddle back to Stonehaven is motivated by the perfect warm-up solution, a woodfired sauna in a converted horsebox. We spend an hour swapping between sweating in the sauna, speedy dips in the freezing sea and cold showers – feeling euphoric, and very Scandinavian. Hunger kicks in so we stroll along the promenade to award winning fish and chip shop The Bay. It’s as good as I hoped, crisp batter, tender fish and a piquant tartare sauce – top marks.

HeraldScotland:

From here I’m heading inland to ‘Royal Deeside’ to spend the afternoon in the pretty towns of Ballater, Braemar and Banchory. I direct my pals south to gorgeous St. Cyrus beach. It’s a nature reserve fringed with dunes and one of the best beaches I know.

I drive to Banchory and refuel with excellent coffee and cake at The Ride bike shop and cafe, then climb nearby Scolty Hill. The walk starts in forestry but soon the Sitka spruce gives way to native woodland and winding paths lead up to Scolty Tower, a 20m tall monument to General William Burnett, once a local landowner who fought alongside Wellington. From the top of the tower Royal Deeside stretches to the horizon, glacier rounded hills, forests and the meandering river Dee.

The weather is turning and my 5am start is catching up on me, so I check into the former estate house Banchory Lodge. It’s had a loving refurbishment and combines the traditional country house look with a bit of humour, swapping taxidermy for animal motifs. In my spacious room there’s muted flamingo wallpaper, a high leather headboard and velvet armchairs – perfect to curl up in and admire the view of the river Dee.

HeraldScotland:

The dining room features portrait wallpaper, traditional framed pictures, and a few animals in top hats to make sure you’re paying attention. On the menu, hearty winter fare – sausage and mash, pork chops, and steaks. I opt for a smoked salmon Scotch egg (runny inside, genius), and a monkfish curry. Portions are generous, the staff are cheery and there’s a roaring fire, wonderful.

I’m keen to see the coastal fishing villages on the north coast so after a hearty breakfast I head north to Portsoy. The drive takes me through the fine agricultural land at the heart of Aberdeenshire: golden fields, neat hay bales, and handsome granite farmhouses, with occasional pockets of ancient woodland.

HeraldScotland:

THE villages on the Aberdeenshire coast tell the story of the rise, fall and modernisation of the Scottish fishing industry. Starting at Portsoy, the pretty harbour at Portsoy was rebuilt in 1825 to accommodate the growing herring fleet. Today it’s a quiet spot, with leisure craft outnumbering fishing vessels. On a warmer day it looks the perfect spot for a swim.

The next village along Gardenstown, was once a hive of industry. More than 90 boats operated from the harbour in 1900. In the fascinating wee museum in the harbour, I’m struck by images of the young workforce, teenage girls who followed the herring boats, and could gut a herring a second. Young lads learning the ropes. I admire a cosy gansey, a thick wool jumper knitted with a specific pattern in each family, to help identify poor souls lost at sea. It’s a sobering reminder not to be too nostalgic about the camaraderie and community of the herring boom.

It feels like ancient history, but I’m told some children of the women in these pictures still live in the village. These elders will be the last to remember barrels of herring in the harbour.

Around the bay is Crovie (pronounced Crivie), it’s an extremely steep descent on foot to the village. Here picture-book stone fishing cottages hug the bay, with washing lines out front. In 1953 many homes were destroyed in a storm and many residents chose not to return. During my visit I don’t see a soul. At Pennan waves crash against the whitewashed waterfront sending a spray that reaches my knees. I can only imagine a true winter storm here or trying to make a living in a small fishing boat. The red phone box made famous by 1983 film Local Hero is still on the waterfront, as is the Pennan Inn.

As I drive further east I start to see how the fishing industry has changed. At Macduff large commercial fishing boats line the waterfront, at Fraserburgh it’s vast pelagic trawlers. After a walk on Fraserburgh’s pink-hued sandy beach, I follow the coastal road south as the sun sets, lighting up the golden fields.

My destination tonight is luxurious Maryculter House and after my windswept day I’ve booked the ‘Cosy Night in’ package. It starts with a gin flight and canapes in the Great Hall. And what a hall it is. Built in 1225 by the Knights Templar, this towering stone room has a fireplace at each end, armoured knights and oil paintings that reach to the ceiling. Later Maryculter House was home to a Jacobite family who came home from Culloden, and more recently a couple that survived the sinking of The Titanic. If these walls could talk the stories they could tell.

HeraldScotland:

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Aberdeenshire, but I’m discovering how history and industry have shaped the landscape. I’m already planning future visits to castles, to the harbour festival at Portsoy, and for coastal and river walks. There are so many more stories to be told. If you want to plan your own north-east adventure, Visit Aberdeenshire is an invaluable resource.

Stonehaven www.Paddleboardingshpb.co.uk

Visit Aberdeenshire www.visitabdn.com

The Bay www.thebayfishandchips.co.uk

 

 

SIX OF THE BEST PLACES TO STAY

The Fife Arms

World class art meets luxury in this opulent Braemar hotel. Conde Nast recently voted it the best hotel in the UK – book a room and see if you agree.

www.thefifearms.com

Maryculter House

In a beautiful Deeside location and dating from 1225, this is a very special spot with top-notch food and service.

www.maryculterhouse.com

MacLeod House and Lodge at Trump International Golf Links

If you like gold, glitz, and glamour with your golf this is the spot for you. Arrival by helicopter optional.

www.trumpgolfscotland.com/hotel

Banchory Lodge

At the confluence of the River Dee and the Feugh in the heart of Royal Deeside this comfortable hotel makes for a relaxing break and is a brilliant base to explore the area.

www.banchorylodge.com

Douneside House

Run by charitable foundation the MacRobert Trust, elegant Douneside House is steeped in history. The gorgeous garden is an RHS Partner with beautiful terraces, rock pools and a walled garden to explore.

www.dounesidehouse.co.uk

Darroch Learg

Perched on Craigendarroch hill near Ballater this hotel in the trees is a charming quiet retreat with excellent food.

www.darrochlearg.co.uk

 

Delightful dishes guaranteed to put a smile on your face

Aberdeen locals will already be well aware of Amuse by Kevin Dalgleish, since it opened in July it’s been a word-of-mouth sensation. If you live elsewhere, perhaps it’s time for a trip to the granite city. Dalgleish (below) is one of the northeast’s most revered chefs, training at The Savoy then working at Ackergill Tower and The Chester Hotel. Amuse is his first solo venture.

Set slightly below street level the restaurant is flooded with light, bouncing off exposed brick walls and through large internal porthole windows. It’s elegant but relaxed, leather banquette seating, squashy tweed cushions and plenty of plants. Chilled soul music and friendly staff add to the ambiance. Oil paintings of people, fish and crustaceans grace the walls.

HeraldScotland:

To me the best menus are short, seasonal, and exciting and in the set lunch that’s exactly what Amuse offers: four starters, six mains and four desserts with tough decisions at every juncture.

I start with a salad of dressed east coast crab, and it’s mind-bendingly good: sweet crab in an elderflower mayonnaise, citrusy leaves and crisp balls of apple, cucumber, and kohlrabi.

The Seafood gratin Royale has me polishing my crown. Generous pieces of haddock, salmon, and scallops swim in a creamy leek and Emmental velouté, scattered with crispy shallots and potato puffs. If this is Dalgleish’s take on the beloved north-east dish Cullen Skink, then he’s nailed it. It’s rich and luxurious and the fish is tender and packed full of flavour, as advised a glass of Pecorino is the perfect match.

HeraldScotland:

I’m stuck on pudding: pavlova, chocolate, treacle tart or cheese, how on earth to choose? “The chocolate is incredible, ‘’ My waiter tells me and my goodness he’s right. Smooth Valrhona chocolate with orange, candied kumquats and “hundreds and thousands’’ – knobbly honeycomb and chocolate crisps, and a slightly salted hazelnut cream. Kevin Dalgleish pops by my table to say hello and finds me gazing into the chocolatey depths of my bowl, almost lost for words.

I ascend back to street level, the trees on Queen’s Terrace Gardens ablaze with colour, the sky cerulean blue. Maybe it’s the chocolate rush, wine at lunchtime, or just my giddy delight at a truly excellent meal, but I’m a little bit in love with Amuse.

1 Queen’s Terrace, Aberdeen AB10 1XL

www.amuse-restaurant.com