WE had safely managed to make our way onto the Jacobite cruise undetected. Three-year-old Flora was our decoy as she showed off her home-made Loch Ness monster badge to staff.
The cute cut out proved perfect as our cover remained intact. You see the cruise staff thought we were like all the other tourists on the boat and hunting for the famous Nessie.
But we had a more important mission and that was to discover the delights of Urquhart Castle, which lies on the banks of Loch Ness.
So why was this hauntingly beautiful ruin more important than the monster? Because it currently houses one of our own. Former East Lancashire Newspaper sub-editor Mrs Shirley Whiteley is now one of the castles guides. She has swopped Lancashire for The Highlands and is clearly revelling in her new role helping tourists.
And who could blame her? The castle commands one of the most picturesque positions on the loch and Shirley can enjoy each day drinking in the view. Infact Ruaridh (6) and Flora loved it so much that is has now been dubbed “Shirley’s castle’’ by them!
Flora, Ruaridh and I had just one day to explore the area and we really did want to see the Loch Ness monster too, so we hopped aboard the Jacobite’s Inspiration cruise which kills both birds with one stone. The one hour sail glides you gently up the loch as you scan for the shy creature who has managed to avoid people for years. But it also heads right up to the castle for a stunning glimpse of what’s on offer.
Jacobite offers a number of different cruises, with the Freedom one allowing you to get off at the castle and see it in all its glory before you sail back. Whichever you choose (there is one which lasts up to six and a half hours and includes visiting local attractions) you are guaranteed wonderful views and my two particularly enjoyed the activity packs they were handed featuring Jess the purple Jacobite monster.
Once inside Shirley’s castle we had great fun exploring. A short film explains the history of the fortress which was once one of Scotland’s biggest and has been the scene of centuries of turbulence and conflict.
Its changed hands between the Scots and the English over the years until 1692 when it was finally blown up following a battle between the Williamites and Jacobites. What remains today is a shell, but a beautiful one and Historic Scotland, who now look after it, have done an excellent job with interpretation boards giving you a taste of life during occupancy. And to Ruaridh’s great delight, there is a huge catapult, which his hero Dennis the Menace would have been proud of!
A short journey from the banks of Loch Ness takes you into the gateway city of The Highlands, Inverness. This lovely place is packed with museums, top restaurants and well-known shops. But we had headed there to visit Eden Court Theatre. This modern building has an excellent theatre, designed so we can all see without big heads or pillars! And a trendy feel to it, which is probably why some many big name performers head there.
Ruaridh and Flora had lured me there to see their hero Dora The Explorer in her own live show. This Spanish cartoon character is number one with children of a certain age and the slick performance was packed with excited youngsters.
The show told the story of Dora as she tried to find her missing teddy. Joined by a host of friends and her enemy Swiper, she danced and sang her way to the Lost Kingdom where she was reunited with her teddy (Ruaridh and Flora’s favourite bit!).
From the big city, we drove over the mighty Kessock Bridge and on to The Black Isle to The Black Isle Wildlife Park. Set in 50 hectares of ground, the park is home to animals from lemurs to zebras and there are plenty of opportunities for little ones to pet goats and see young chicks. There’s also a play area and café to keep everyone happy and a small tractor ride around the park.
Visit Scotland has chosen 2013 as its Year of Natural Scotland and The Highlands could not be a better place to see it. There is an abundance of natural beauty, wildlife and of course Shirley’s castle!
Search for the shy Loch Ness monster amid the stunning scenery of the Highlands. Jacobite Tours are friendly, informative and well run cruises. Log onto www.jacobite.co.uk
Take a delve into history at Urquhart Castle, see www.urquhartcastle.co.uk for opening times and prices.
Family fun is guaranteed at The Black Isle Wildlife Park. Log onto www.blackislewildlifepark.org.uk for the latest information on new animals.
A wealth of culture and entertainment for all the family is available at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, check out www.eden-court.co.uk
Visit Scotland is promoting natural Scotland and where better to see this than The Highlands. Check out accommodation, transport and what’s on via www.visitscotland.com