TODAY’S eco-tourists are prepared to pay a small fortune travelling the world for a glimpse of life in the raw.
Whether it’s a big game trip to Africa or the chance to see the unique creatures of the Galapagos, wildlife tourism has become big business for travellers with time on their hands.
Yet, so many of these camera-wielding globe-trotters scarcely give a thought to the magnificent species on their own doorstep.
Scotland lays claim to being Europe’s leading wildlife destination – and they aren’t talking about Glasgow on a Saturday night!
The great outdoors north of the border is home to a vast range of wild creatures – and you don’t need to be a David Attenborough to track them down for a close-up view.
We’re all familiar with the Atlantic salmon, the golden eagles and the red squirrels.
But Scotland’s highlands, and the waters surrounding them, host a range of exotic creatures from bottlenose dolphins to puffins and wildcats to ospreys.
What more majestic sight could you hope for than an imperial red deer stag – as immortalised in Sir Edward Landseer’s study of the Monarch of the Glen?
And the little corner of Scotland I chose to explore really IS true Monarch of the Glen country.
It was here, between Badenoch and Strathspey in the Cairngorms National Park that the BBC drama series, starring Richard Briers, was set.
From the bedroom window of my base at the charmingly olde-worlde Nethybridge Hotel, I could look across the rolling fields to Glenbogle – in reality the village of Broomhill – and the eastern terminus of the Strathspey Steam Railway, one of the region’s prime tourist attractions.
A family of two adults and up to three children can enjoy an exhillerating afternoon’s round trip of 20 miles to and from the railway’s HQ at Aviemore for just £24 – with tremendous views into the bargain.
Midway along the line is Boat of Garten, once a ferry crossing of the Spey and now home to the Loch Garten Osprey Centre.
The Spey is one of the great Scottish salmon rivers with some great runs of salmon. In fact, over 8,000 fish are taken each year.
And it doesn’t have to be expensive.
The Abernethy Angling Improvement Association offers over six miles of double bank fishing on the Spey for just £45 for a day ticket – and only £5 for juniors.
The association’s Aviemore Beat offers two miles of single bank fishing which consistently produces specimen fish. Over the past few years this stretch has produced a 14.5 lb brown trout and a l5.5 lb sea trout.
All visitors staying in Boat of Garten, Nethybridge, Dulnain Bridge and Carr Bridge qualify to fish the waters using fly, spinners or worm.
Over 1,100 sea trout are taken from these waters each year – and if you’re a novice at salmon and sea trout fishing, don’t worry! You can get expert tuition.
Fergus Laing, who runs the 18-hole Craggan Golf Course and fishery on the outskirts of Grantown, provided me with a crash course in the basics.
Fergus is a lucky man.
His little corner of Scotland boasts magnificent views of the Cairngorms to the south and the Cromdale Hills to the east and is easily accessible from the A95.
Craggan a fine, 18-hole putting green of around 500 yards, is free if you’ve paid for the golf course.
Fringe benefits include a falconry centre, an archery range and acres of open space to fly your kite – one of the main activities on the day we visited.
Perhaps the biggest participation sport around here, though, is walking, and the Rothiemurchus Estate on the outskirts of Aviemore is also a favourite haunt of cyclists and mountain bikers.
Rothiemurchus offers wonderful walks for all ages and abilities – from short forest or loch-side strolls to more demanding hill walks.
Walkers are surrounded by spectacular scenery – natural woodland, lochs and streams and a wealth of different plants. Keep your eyes peeled for red squirrel, red deer, pine martens and rare birds including the Scottish crossbill and capercaillie.
Possibly your best chance of seeing pine marten at play, however, is at the Speyside Wildlife Centre at Inverdruie.
Bill Oddie is among the regular visitors to the centre’s pine marten and badger hide which features regularly on TV nature programmes. At £18 for a night’s compulsive viewing, it’s a bargain!
Of course, visiting Scotland doesn’t have to be hard work all the time.
There are plenty of opportunities to relax in the nicest possible way because much of the Cairngorms National Park lies in Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail – and there are any number of distilleries where you can fill your lungs with the aromas of roasting barley – and grab a slice of the Angels’ Share.
We popped in to the Tomatin Distillery just off the A96, and although it’s now owned by the Japanese, I can honestly testify the Scotch tastes just as good as it ever did.
Don’t forget, of course, that the Cairngorms Park lies just a few miles away from that most secretive of Scottish lakes, Loch Ness.
And if you do happen to spot something large and sinister lurking in those murky waters you’ve probably spent too much time on the Whisky Trail!