Imagine a mountainous island, fringed with sandy beaches, that's only a short drive and ferry ride from a major European city. Abundant with wildlife and locally-sourced foods, the island offers delicious cuisine, and is almost completely self-sustaining. The climate is often perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Sounds too good to be true, right? Such a place exists, but it's a closely guarded secret among locals.
Scotland's Isle of Arran, located southwest of Glasgow in the Firth of Clyde, is only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, but it leaves a lasting impression. Dubbed "Scotland in miniature," the island's varied topography and the Gulf Stream's mild currents ensure a temperate climate, despite its northernly latitude. Activities run the gamut from adrenaline-pumping (mountain biking and climbing the peaks in the island's interior) to relaxing (whisky tastings and spa treatments). Ferries connect the island to Ardrossan on the mainland five times daily; check the website for detailed information on the sailings (tickets are about $10 per driver/passenger). Here's what to do once you get there...
Eat and Drink:
Salmon, local venison, cheese, wild herbs, and freshly-foraged berries – chefs treat the island like a garden and supply their restaurants with the bounty. In fact, it's possible to eat "Made in Arran" for the entire duration of your stay: The isle has the highest concentration of artisanal producers anywhere in Scotland. For example, the Torrylinn Creamery uses milk from Arran herds of black and white Friesian cows in recipes that have been passed down through generations of cheese-makers. (The Dunlop is to die for, and has racked up numerous awards.)
Don't miss a tour and tasting at the Isle of Arran Distillery in Lochranza. When it was under construction in 1994, a pair of rare Golden Eagles built their nest on a nearby cliff, an auspicious sign for the distillery which was later inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen. With a special Robert Burns Single Malt and Robert Burns Blended Whisky, the Isle of Arran Distillery is the only distillery allowed to use the image and signature of Scotland's beloved national bard in its packaging. Local libations aren't limited to whisky, though; you can also try beers from the Arran Brewery.
Arran Aromatics is a family-owned line of bath and body products made with natural ingredients. Visitors are welcome to tour the small factory where the toiletries are made, not far from the town of Broddick. Next door is the Island Cheese Company where you can stock up on some cheeses enclosed in wax wheels. Arran is also home to numerous art galleries: Inspired by the island's dramatic landscapes, artists flock to Arran, and original works can be purchased at the Arran Art Gallery.
The Auchrannie House Hotel, Spa Resort and Country Club gets the ultimate stamp of approval: a crew of devoted regulars keep coming back, season after season. Encompassing two four-star hotels, Auchrannie has extensive facilities: swimming pools, three restaurants, a "Playbarn" for kids, and a luxurious spa. I also recommend the Kildonan Hotel on the southern coast. With rates from about $150/night (double and twin rooms), this bed and breakfast features panoramic sea views from its perch on the beach.