DRIVING through ancient pine forests, as heather-clad mountains march into the distance, I see why Prince Charles opted to self-isolate at his Scots home, Birkhall.
Tucked away on the Balmoral estate in stunning scenery, it is the ideal place to be marooned for a few weeks. Or in our case, three days.
Deeside is often overlooked but has charmed the royals since the reign of Queen Victoria.
While we may not be able to travel there right now, in normal times most tourists head for the must-see sights of the western Highlands, the River Dee snakes through an area of equally majestic scenery, charming towns and villages, castles. The weather is better, too.
Just half an hour into our drive from Aberdeen airport, my own little heirs need to let off steam. Right on cue, Crathes Castle pokes its handsome head above the trees.
Ask Pixar to come up with a fairytale Scots castle and this is what they might produce, with 16th-century turrets and gargoyles that enthral my clan. There is also a Go Ape high-wire course and a huge adventure playground.
Vintage thrills from a different era are on offer at the Royal Deeside Railway, a few miles west at Milton of Crathes.
Boarding the steam loco for the 20-minute ride let me at last admire the scenery, having spent the drive here with my eyes fixed to the road.
Staying at the 4H Hilton Grand Vacations hotel at Craigendarroch, we feel like royalty ourselves. Two indoor pools and an adventure playground keep the kids happy while my wife enjoys the spa.
Even Balmoral, seven miles away, might not have facilities to match.
Admiring the crags and mountains in the early morning sun, it is easy to miss the brown signs pointing to the world-famous castles.
Balmoral’s grounds — including Prince Philip’s kitchen garden — are normally open to the public from April to the end of July, when the Queen arrives for her annual stay.
Only one room in the castle is open but, my, what a room. The ballroom is the largest space in the castle and hosts the annual Ghillies Ball.
It was a bit early in the day for my Auld Lang Syne routine so I instead had a look at the guided tours of the estate, including a luxury Land Rover safari.
Soaring from the Balmoral estate’s “back garden” is one hell of a rockery — the craggy peak of Lochnagar. Fated by Prince Charles in his children’s book The Old Man Of Lochnagar, it was climbed by Queen Victoria in 1848.
If you want to follow in her footsteps, bear in mind it is 3,789ft and can be Arctic up top. But you will be rewarded with views of the estate and wider Cairngorms National Park — one of Europe’s last remaining wildernesses. No wonder it inspired the poetry of Lord Byron.
Back at sea level, you will have earned a wee dram on the Royal Lochnagar distillery tour. Under-eights are not allowed . . . which was fine by me, as it left me to admire the copper stills and mash tun in peace. Nor did I have to rush my sample at the end.
It is another spectacular drive — this time for my wife, who skipped the whisky — as you get deeper into the Cairngorms. They boast four of Britain’s five highest mountains.
Braemar sits deep among these rugged peaks under the shadow of Ben Macdui, Britain’s second-highest — which Queen Victoria scaled aged 40. Legend has it she drank whisky and water as she climbed.
Down the mountain, the real revelry occurs. Dating back to the reign of Scots king Malcolm III in the 11th century, Braemar’s Highland Games are world-famous, thanks in part to members of the Royal Family joining spectators for a riot of caber-tossing, pipe bands and traditional dancing each September.
Our visit was earlier in the year, so we made do with our own high-land fling at the Fife Arms.
Braemar is more than 1,000ft up and this luxury boutique hotel is aimed at grown-ups seeking the high life alone. Our kids were welcome, though, and developed a real taste for prime steak and seafood.
Taking the quieter South Deeside Road back to Aberdeen, you see why generations of salmon fishermen, walkers, deer stalkers and nature lovers have come here to recharge.
Sparkles in the sun
But with an early-morning flight home the next day, an afternoon and night in bustling Aberdeen beckoned.
When our flight arrived in the Granite City, our boys gazed at the non-stop helicopters taking off for North Sea oil rigs.
“Black gold” is still important but offshore workers and Texan tycoons are not the only visitors to this historic university port. There is a pleasure beach including the famous Codona’s Amusement Park.
Feeling brave? You can even surf. Stick on a wetsuit, squint and you could be in Santa Monica. Almost.
Or explore Old Aberdeen’s cobbled streets and granite buildings dating to the 17th century. The university here is older still, born in 1494.
Farther into the city centre, get Marischal College on your Instagram feed. It is one of the world’s largest granite buildings and sparkles in the sun. Or soak up the charm of Fit Dee, a fishing village at the eastern end of Aberdeen’s harbour.
We missed the Highland Games but the Balmoral of this story is: There is plenty else for a dram good time on Royal Deeside.
GO: ROYAL DEESIDE
GETTING THERE: BA usually flies to Aberdeen from Heathrow and easyJet from Luton. There are LNER train services direct from London King’s Cross via York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
STAYING THERE: Hilton Grand Vacations at Craigendarroch usually has studios, one and two-bed suites from £170per night. See hilton.com. The Malmaison Aberdeen usually has rooms from £70. See malmaison.com.
MORE INFO: For a virtual tour of Aberdeenshire, see visitabdn.com/ABDNwillwait or see visitscotland.com.
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