Mention the Scottish Highlands and everyone’s thoughts inevitably turn to kilts and bagpipes and other Scottish tropes. But in Fort William, spandex-clad bicyclists and groups sporting climbing harnesses mix easily with bearded, plaid-wearing Scotsmen. As the hub of the Lochaber region of the Scottish Highlands, Fort William fancies itself as the “Adventure Capitol of the UK.” After a few days sampling the area’s abundant outdoor opportunities—including cycling, skiing, mountain climbing, sailing, paragliding and more—you’ll wholeheartedly agree with that description.
While the Lochaber area has been inhabited for millennia, Fort William itself dates back only as far as 1654. In the aftermath of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Lord Protector Cromwell sent 250 soldiers to the area to suppress local clans like the Camerons who resisted London’s control. The original wooden stockade in which the troops were housed (first known as the Garrison of Inverlochy) was soon enlarged into a proper stone fort, the remnants of which can still be found in the bustling town of Fort William.
Fort William is perfectly accessible via highway from the international airports of Edinburgh and Glasgow. But savvy visitors skip the drive and arrive by train. The West Highland Line spirits travelers from Glasgow to Fort William in just under four hours. Along the way, you’ll enjoy spectacular views into Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, and you’ll get your first glimpses of Ben Nevis—the UK’s highest mountain and the backdrop for the entire region. By the time you arrive in Fort William, you’ll surely find yourself immersed in the spirit of the Highlands.
So-called “self-catering” accommodations have been welcoming visitors to the United Kingdom since long before there was a thing called Airbnb. The Fort William area boasts no shortage of these options, from modern lofts downtown to stone cottages at the foot of Ben Nevis itself. The area’s most distinctive full-service lodging can be found several miles away at Inverlochy Castle Hotel. Billed as “the finest country house hotel in Scotland,” Inverlochy has hosted famous guests ranging from Robert Redford and Elton John to Jefferson Davis, President of the short-lived Confederate States of America.
Tens of thousands of visitors tackle the slopes of Ben Nevis every year. At 10 miles roundtrip with considerable elevation gain, the main hiking route route is considered moderately difficult for hikers in good shape. No climbing gear is required, but the authorities recommend that someone in each group have a map and compass (and the ability to use them) in the event that fog limits visibility on the mountain. If you’re not quite up for the climb, the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola can get you to the top of nearby Aonach Mòr—the eighth-highest mountain in Britain—with no compass required.
Fort William’s unique geographic setting gives credence to its claim of a “sea to summit” dining experience. From its perch on a Loch Linnie pier, the Crannog Restaurant serves straight-from-the-water Scottish seafood and doubles as the point of departure for daily scenic cruises on the loch. Heading inland, diners at the Ben Nevis Inn enjoy both traditional delicacies like venison sausage and stunning views of the mountain for which the establishment is named. And when you’re ready to sample another local delicacy, the tasting tour at the Ben Nevis Distillery offers three distinctive Scotch whiskies for a mere £18.
Relax in the Adventure Capitol of the UK? Absolutely. After a full slate of outdoor adventure, some downtime can be a welcome respite. Castle tours are a must when in the highlands, and Inverlochy Castle just outside of Fort William is no exception. (Just don’t confuse “Old” Inverlochy Castle with the “new” five-star Inverlochy Castle Hotel.) Movie buffs flock to day-long auto tours of Glen Nevis, whose dramatic scenery featured prominently in “Braveheart,” “Rob Roy,” “Highlander,” and more. And if you head west along the Road to the Isles via car or the Jacobite Steam Train, you just might recognize the picturesque Glenfinnan Viaduct as the Hogwarts Express line from the “Harry Potter” films.
Grab a souvenir
Fort William is certainly known more for experiences than shopping, but there’s still plenty of browsing to be had. Shoppers and souvenir hunters should head to Fort William’s High Street for their “retail therapy.” The House of Clan Jamfrie is a gift shop that specializes in all things Scottish, from Highland garments and framed photography to a huge selection of Scotch whiskies in sizes convenient for travel. As your trip comes to a close, the Highland Bookshop can recommend the perfect Scot-penned reading material for the flight back home.