Thursday , October 6 2022

A slow Highlands adventure: new laid-back holidays to benefit people and planet

“We can take the high ground and possibly avoid the bog and stream or take the easier low ground and probably end up in both,” our mountain guide Anna Danby explains as we contemplate our route along the Abhainn Rath – a stream that trickles beneath the Ben Nevis range. Rain and sun come and go leaving a shifting patchwork of colours on the valley floor below.

We opt for the higher ground, picking our way along the contours and admiring six roe deer silently surveying us from a ridge 20 metres away. Once we’re on the valley floor, petrified tree trunks, the bog-preserved remains of a forest that filled this landscape 7,000 years ago, jut out from rusty-red and peat-black gullies. Baby frogs leap in all directions. Away from the main hiking paths, there’s no one else in sight.

Twenty-four hours earlier, I’d watched the UK pass by on the train from Brighton to Edinburgh and on to the Highlands. At Spean Bridge, an unassuming village often overlooked by visitors for Fort William down the road, I meet Sara Mair Bellshaw, founder of new tour operator Slow Adventure, whose inaugural trip I’m here to sample. “This is our first trip, and it’s also my home village,” she says. “We’ve all appreciated people and experiences on our doorstep much more during Covid-19, and now I get to share my local discoveries with visitors.”

A tasting sessions at Great Glen Charcuterie
A tasting sessions at Great Glen Charcuterie

The first part of the adventure involves three days of hiking and wild camping with Anna (who runs Wild Roots guiding), setting out from Spean Bridge towards Corrour – a vast rewilding estate home to the UK’s most remote railway station. After that, windswept and a little euphoric, we head back to Spean Bridge by train for part two, which focuses on hyper-local food and beer experiences, with Tirindrish House B&B as a base. A tour and tastings at Glen Spean Brewing Co with co-founder Ian Peter, and a feast of sustainably sourced venison and garden produce at the home of Great Glen Charcuterie founder Anja Baak are highlights.

Wild camping and sipping wine in a beautiful Georgian manor may not seem to be natural bedfellows, but these experiences share a slow-travel ethos – a thoughtful, deep dive rather than a box-checking exercise, showcasing local organisations from different sectors.

After their plans were halted by Covid, Sara started Slow Adventure with Jane Stuart-Smith (who previously owned the White House slow food restaurant on Scotland’s west coast) in late 2021 and launched it this summer. The aim is to help people explore less well-known destinations, including Jämtland Härjedalen in Sweden and Valtellina in northern Italy, spend money on local and micro-experiences, and immerse themselves in nature and community. The business was inspired by the EU-funded academic SAINT (Slow Adventure in the Northern Territories) project (which Sara project-managed): it worked with small businesses throughout northern Europe to develop slow adventure experiences that enhance the wellbeing of communities, nature, and visitors.

walking on the Corrour estate
Guided walking on the Corrour estate

Jane was keen to get involved, having seen first-hand the damage tourism can do to small rural communities. “In Morvern, where I live, on the west coast of Scotland, there has been an increase in visitors staying in a motorhome or self-catering accommodation for one night and then moving on, contributing nothing to the local area except sometimes leaving their rubbish,” she said. Sara adds that what’s happened to places like Skye and the North Coast 500 route in Scotland, where destinations have been marketed without proper buy-in from the local community, causing a significant strain on local infrastructure, is a motivator.

“We want to make it possible for rural communities to shape nature-based tourism and adventure travel in their local area so that it can be a thriving place for all,” said Sara. Rather than “suppliers”, Slow Adventure’s local hosts are known as members, to reflect their role in shaping the overall experience. Connecting small-scale local businesses and travellers looking for meaningful connection is a the heart of the plan.

Slow Adventure isn’t the only travel business to embrace the rising trend for slower experiences. Recognising that much tourism was unsustainable pre-pandemic, because of carbon emissions and overtourism, embracing the slow ethos offers businesses the chance to deliver a more positive impact on the ground. According to Hospitality Insights, slow travel will grow 10% year on year, and a recent survey by publisher Hidden Scotland discovered that 83% of people travelling to Scotland are looking for slow travel experiences. Sales of Bradt’s Slow Travel guides doubled last year, as more people look for local, responsible and “experiential’ travel”, according to boss Adrian Phillips.

This summer, Much Better Adventures (MBA) will run its first hut-to-hut hiking trip in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa, with a local mountain guide who takes hikers to visit small cheese-makers and cider factories, focusing on the lesser-visited south of the region. MBA co-founder Sam Bruce says, “Joining locally led guided tours provides one of the best ways to explore beyond the surface of a place. It leads to a far greater understanding and appreciation of the details of the culture, history and traditions.”

glass of craft beer
Carefully made craft beer is perfect for slaking a slow adventure thirst

Over in the Balkans, Intrepid has also carved out a group-trip itinerary that focuses on traditional and local produce in mountain villages and towns in Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. General Manager Zina Bencheikh says: “By visiting fantastic home cooks and local producers, you’re essentially spreading the benefit of tourism to those who need it most. These hyper-local experiences aren’t always easy to find, but they are most authentic and rewarding.”

Tourist boards are also getting involved. Visit Sweden is promoting the new 44-mile Gotaleden Hiking Trail between Gothenburg and Alingsås in west Sweden. A “meet the locals” project connects hikers with local experiences, such as horseriding and farm stays, and local producers offer fika (coffee, cake and a chat) stops along the way. Last year, Visit Scotland launched an international post-Covid campaign to encourage visitors to “slow down, recharge, escape and enjoy immersive and sustainable tourism experiences”.

Slow Adventure certainly seems to be doing just that. I had never heard of Spean Bridge, but by the end of the trip I’d crisscrossed the village several times, explored the landscape with a local mountain guide, and been welcomed into several homes. I left hugging hosts like old friends, hoping our paths would cross again. It is hospitality in its truest form, which is what going slow is all about.

The Scotland Hiking and Food Culture trip costs £772 for five days.

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