Need a Weekend Break? Take the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness!
Forego airport departure lounges in favour of the Caledonian Sleeper to the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands – Inverness!
An escape from the hustle and bustle of London sees To Do List taking overnight trains, hunting Nessie, and admiring the beauty of the Beauly Firth… before the haar came in!
How to Get There
As they say, getting there is half the fun – so for our trip to Inverness, we took the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Inverness, a nightly service (apart from Saturday), which also serves Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Fort William (and a number of other ‘smaller’ stops along the way).
The Caledonian Sleeper has been running since 1996, and under current ownership (Serco) since 2015. New rolling stock is expected to enter service later in 2018, but until then passengers can still travel in relative comfort either seated (with reclining seats) or in cabins sleeping two (or one in First Class).
Traveling on the sleeper train isn’t quite like traveling on the Orient Express – even in First Class (the same cabins, just without the top bunk pulled down), the cabins are pretty basic, and facilities limited (no en-suites here – just a washbasin, cannily hidden away). The Lounge Car, open to all cabin passengers but with priority given to First Class, is a friendly, convivial environment to meet fellow passengers, get a bite to eat, and take advantage of the reasonably priced and well-stocked bar! However, the decor does feel dated, even if an effort has clearly been made to refresh things.
What cannot be overstated, however, is the sheer joy of sleeping on a train. Being rocked to sleep as the train trundles north, waking occasionally to misty glimpses of passing trees, or finding that you’re in an otherwise deserted station waiting for carriages to be disconnected to head on to another destination – it’s just magical!
Lucky First Class passengers can choose to take breakfast in the lounge car – but, even better, you can have a breakfast tray delivered to your cabin, so you can tuck in to a Highland Breakfast as you watch the morning countryside whizz past your window. Another benefit for First Class passengers is that you don’t share a cabin – if you’re traveling as a couple, you get two adjoining cabins. Standard Class cabins are single-sex two-berths, so solo travelers may find themselves bunking up with a stranger. Snoring aside, we spoke to fellow passengers who had had great experiences of meeting a wide range of travelers – and, it has to be said, the whole experience lends itself very much to socialising!
Alas, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that all does not run smoothly 100% of the time – and indeed, on our return trip an issue with the locomotive meant that passengers were taxied from Inverness to Edinburgh to meet up with the rest of the train at 2am. Not quite as relaxing or enjoyable! But, credit is due to the on-board team, who looked after everyone incredibly well through the ordeal, and maintained a good sense of humour throughout.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of options in Inverness itself, or further afield either side of Loch Ness, but we made our home at the North Kessock Hotel, across the Beauly Firth with a view back towards Inverness. A short taxi ride from Inverness (buses are irregular…), the North Kessock Hotel is a surprising oasis on an otherwise unassuming residential street. Unassuming, that is, except for the stunning view across the Beauly Firth and – a short walk beyond the Kessock Bridge – the Morray Firth: one of the best places on the British coast for observing dolphins and whales.
Our room at the North Kessock Hotel was warm and comfortable, with a clean, modern en-suite bathroom. Even better, the restaurant served up a stunning evening meal and a fortifying breakfast the next morning – just what we needed as we prepared to face the haar (a cold sea fog) that had miraculously arrived within minutes of us taking pictures of a beautiful, clear sky!
What to Do
We just couldn’t resist the temptation to head out onto Loch Ness to see if we could spot the elusive beastie. Loch Ness by Jacobite run cruises all year round, with winter departures from the Clasnman Harbour (10 miles from Inverness on the A82 – several buses from the city center pass by, but you should check timetables).
The Freedom Tour includes an hour on the waters of Loch Ness, and an hour exploring the historic ruins of Urquhart Castle. Aboard the Jacobite Warrior, our guide Linda told us all about the legends of the Loch and its famous monster, before we were dropped off at Urquhart Castle. Guiden tours of the castle are available, and there’s also a very good 8-minute film showing on rotation in the visitor center, which finishes with quite a stunning finale! Back aboard the boat, the chill winds didn’t stop us from enjoying a couple of drinks from the onboard bar – there’s nothing like standing at the front of a boat, wind in your face, bottle of Monster Mash beer in hand!
Inverness itself is a small but pretty city – and away from typical shops that you would expect (Primark comes in handy if you forgot to pack socks), there is beautiful scenery to be enjoyed just a short walk away. We wandered along the River Ness to the Ness Islands, enjoying the crisp clear air and gawping at the pretty river from ornate footbridges. Along the way, we popped into Eden Court – a performance venue and cinema which claims to be one of the best-equipped arts centers in the country – and the Inverness Ice Centre where, unfortunately, a private skating party prevented us from trying out a spot of curling. If we’d packed swimming shorts, we would have horrified locals by having a wallow at the adjacent Inverness Leisure Centre, which features an inside-out pool – it was very tempting just to leap in!
For drivers – or for those inclined to spend some time on a coach – there are plenty of other attractions around Inverness, including a plethora of distilleries to
get wasted taste whiskeys at, and Culloden Battlefield, site of the decisive 1746 battle between the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart and loyalist troops commanded by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.