The Perfect Drive Through Argyll, Scotland
"Um, did you just hit my car?"
The answer was no. But only barely. Still getting acclimated to the rules of the road, we'd nearly driven ourselves straight into another vehicle. But this vehicle wasn't even moving; it was fully parked, and the owner was standing directly beside it, looking on with equal parts curiosity and confusion.
So when we screeched to a stop, an inch within scraping up the car's pretty paint job, we apologized profusely, then braced ourselves for the worst. But what followed wasn't the finger-pointing, dagger-eyed tirade we feared, it was only the one question, and it was delivered more like an inquiry into the weather forecast than into property damage. When the man saw we hadn't hit his car, he smiled, then sent us off with wave farewell.
This was our first peek into everyday Scotland, with its regular people and rhythms. And just like that, we knew getting out of Edinburgh would be everything we'd been craving.
Sure, the Royal Mile is a one-time must-see, but after a chock-a-block day along the cobbled lane of knockoff kilts, tartan this, and wool and cashmere that, we'd tired of the tourist trail. So we rented a car and sped West, in search of something a little more ordinary, a little less contrived. And in Argyll, we found exactly that.
A blue-green mosaic of lochs, woodlands, fields, and farms stretching 3000 square miles along Scotland's western coast, Argyll is the portrait of rural utopia. And while the region offers plenty to do in the way of activities, for us, it was the not doing that left us feeling so full to the brim. With no bus schedule to consider or agenda to adhere to, we were able to meander our way through, drinking up whatever small pleasures we happened to stumble upon.
In Edinburgh, you can rent a car from the city center at Waverley Station. But to avoid the stress of stop-and-go congestion, one-way streets, and dead-ends, opt to pick up from the airport where you'll have easy access to the motorway.
Automatic cars come at a premium, costing over 50 percent more than their manual counterparts. But if your stick-shift skills are rusty, the extra hit to the wallet is worth it. Out here, it's hill city (read: stall central).
As you drive toward the western coast, smatterings of restaurants and bars quickly give way to only the occasional farmhouse and barn. So stock up on water and snacks before heading out, because it could be hours before you spot your next meal.
With all the hills and turns, what appears on the map to be a short distance from Edinburgh to Argyll actually takes the first-time driver a good three to four hours to traverse. But your patience is well-rewarded, with glimpses of all the little things--treasure troves of wildflowers, a hen cluck-clucking here, or a cow out to pasture there--that make this place pastoral perfection.
Argyll's rolling terrain is a constant delight. It soothes and astounds in turns, each hill and valley alternately obscuring and revealing another stunning slice. It's nature's version of peek-a-boo.
In this part of the country, you may go for miles and miles without spotting any commercial establishments, traffic lights, or even people. But sheep? These wool-puff creatures come in spades, actually outnumbering Scotland's human population.
Even when there are no sheep in sight, reminders of them are all around. Woolen tufts tangled to foliage resemble dried dandelion seeds clinging to their stems—so convincingly you're tempted to make a wish and blow.
Scotland is well-known for its temperamental weather. One minute the sky is cotton-candy clouds and lemon-drop sun, and the next it's all gloom and doom. But while getting caught in a downpour might seem a hassle, it's pretty darned romantic, too.
Argyll is a birder's playground, home to nearly 500 different species. So bring your binoculars and open wide. The world is your aviary.
If you're a city dweller like me, the wholesomeness of the country is something close to therapy. It picks you up, pats you on the back, and says "See? The world's not so bad!" Case in point: Happening upon an "honesty shop" selling farm-fresh eggs and cheese that trusts shoppers to take what they want and leave what they owe. How reaffirming is that?
About twice a year, Argyll's shepherds herd their sheep for shearing. If you're lucky enough to catch one of these face-offs in action, stop to watch it unfold. As entertaining as any sports match, it will make you groan and cheer, sigh and laugh. Here, a border collie does her part to round up a few rebels on the run.
Scotland's sheep come in many varieties, from the Merino to the Cheviot, but the country's most prized breed is the Scottish Blackface, renowned for their hardy build and durable fleece.
If Scotland's land is its fabric, Scotland's sea is the metallic thread that embroiders it. And in Argyll, the lochs that weave their way in from the ocean make for a tapestry that's all the more magical. There's no sign of Nessie, but you can't shake the suspicion she just might make an appearance.
Take a break from driving to walk along the shoreline and soak up the scene--the squeaky clean air, the scent of mud and seaweed, the chill and brine of the water, and perhaps the fellow reveler or two. There couldn't be a sweeter sight than this one.
Here, yet another idyllic charm you might encounter in Argyll: the most enchanting flower box you've ever seen.
And, finally, of all the things there are to experience in Scotland's countryside, the people are the best. Make a point of seeking them out. Their hospitality will warm you.