"You're living the dream," said the lanky youth, in a thick Scottish accent, as he grabbed a line from our 33-metre luxury barge to position us in a lock. Behind him were verdant meadows with sheep grazing, and hills that rippled green like folds in a skirt. The sky was pillowed with clouds.
"I am living the dream, too," he said as he looked past our wooden deck to his sweeping vista of a row of sailboat masts in the foreground and the Grampian Mountains staking time on the lofty jagged horizon that wove through mists. The view included the profile of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain.
My husband and I were cruising on the eight-passenger Scottish Highlander on the Caledonian Canal, once one of the greatest engineering feats on Earth. Man-made canals and locks combined with natural lochs (lakes and estuaries) to cut a roughly 96-kilometre passageway connecting the northeast shore to the southwest coastline. The route saved time for commercial boats, and the dramatic scenery of the Great Glen and the Scottish Highlands created a royal tourist attraction — a destination journey enjoyed by Queen Victoria in 1873.
These days, travellers can enjoy the Caledonian Canal on a European Waterways' barge trip with a rich shore itinerary of castles, the Glen Ord scotch whiskey distillery, battlefields, and even ancient burial grounds. Each shore tethering also offers beautiful places to walk in nature or charming towns.
River cruises are the travel-trend rage these days, and for good reason. Barges can go even more intimately into the landscapes on narrow canals while a van waiting at each mooring can take you to the popular or off beat places nearby. With a great staff-to-passenger ratio, the crew can also cater to your needs, whether you are a history buff, a wonder collector, or a foodie.
The "flights" we enjoyed with our gourmet lunch on the Scottish Highlander barge were not drinks, but "locks" — a series of five elevator locks, called "the Fort Augustus Flight."
We rose more than 24-metres while dining well, since Chef Sasha rose to the occasion with a buffet that included a plate of Scottish cheeses with apple and raspberry chutney that she had made, five kinds of thickly sliced meats artfully arrayed, and incredible-tasting salmon she had smoked on our beautiful barge, some with oak chips and some with apple chips.
I couldn't remember another time when a meal elevated me literally and metaphorically. For the drinks, Heidi, an engaging English woman, suggested a "New World Wine" (meaning, "not from Europe," but from Australia or South Africa or America — some far-flung place once under the Crown). At each lunch and dinner she provided lyrical descriptions of what liquids could go with which local cheeses and courses — all part of living the dream. If we had requested it, she probably would have given us flights of drinks while we went through the Flights of Augustus.
LUCK OF THE SCOTS
As it was, our wonderful Highlands journey included going through beautiful lochs, too, so we had what I'll call the "Luck of the Scots" — lox, lochs, and locks!
In Loch Ness, we sought the "monster," but never saw dear Nessie or any fearful creatures. I was allowed to steer the boat through the loch, which might have been a bit scary for the other passengers. Or it might have been as amusing to them as the adult couple that posed on the shore wearing bright green, wonderfully made, felt green costumes of Nessie with long tails.
For ruined majesty, the Urquhart Castle looms on the high banks of Loch Ness, a dominant fortress more than 500 years ago, and now a compelling attraction with an interactive museum, coffee shop, and gift shop.
Three lochs meet at the island of Eilean Donan, where a picturesque castle was built in the 13th century. Still postcard-lovely and surrounded by tidal pulls, the inside is full of the tides and gossip of centuries.
The Castle of Cawdor, mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth, is still lived in. A guard let me know that when "She" is in residence, the trees all stand up straighter.
I can still remember hearing mystical bagpipe music ahead, with our barge gliding around the bend of a fjord. As we began to make out a lone, kilted player pacing back and forth on the bank, his poignant notes echoed through the landscape. As we got closer, it became clear he was there to play just for us at our next mooring.
There was no doubt: We were living the dream.
For more Scottish dreams, read next week' s Pique about the pre-trip to the Isle of Eriska and the post-trip to capital Edinburgh. For more on Sonne's books including My Adventures: A Traveler's Journal, and The Happiness Handbook, see www.LisaSonne.com. For your own happy barging adventure, check out European Waterways: www.GoBarging.com