Sea kayaking, Plockton
Scotland might not always have the weather, but it has the turquoise seas and deserted white beaches and, if you don the right clobber, you've got no excuse not to spend a day learning to kayak. The waters around Plockton are sheltered, peppered with little islands and brimming with marine life. Alison French organises trips and courses geared to families, beginners, intermediates – and women-only groups (she also coaches at the annual Scottish Women's Paddle Symposium). You can paddle to remote coral beaches and secluded coves only accessible by boat for a picnic lunch or journey along the coastline, around Strome and Kishorn islands, eyes peeled for bottlenose dolphins, porpoise, seals and otters, drinking in the views of Skye, the wild Applecross Peninsula and mountains of Torridon.
• 01599 544422, seakayakplockton.co.uk. Trips offered year-round (although outside the main April-October season it's better for intermediates). Adults £85 per day, children (aged 13-17) £60 per day, overnight kayak camping expeditions an additional £15 per person per night
Eilean Donan, Dornie
Clamber around the ramparts and explore the dimly lit nooks and crannies of one of the most romantic castles in Scotland. Eilean Donan is perched on an island in a majestic mountain-fringed loch, just outside the little village of Dornie on the way to Skye. The craggy castle has been daubed across countless calendars, featured in that famous swooping BBC1 trailer and was the spectacular backdrop for films such as Hollywood blockbuster Highlander. Remember Christopher Lambert, kilt flying, racing across the causeway? (There are framed photos inside if you don't.) The original fortress was built in the 13th century but was raised to the ground by clashing clans and today is largely a 20th-century Grand Designs-style restoration thanks to Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae-Gilstrap, who bought the ruin in 1911. After immersing yourself in Highland history there's a lovely contemporary cafe and shop to browse.
• 01599 555202, eileandonancastle.com. Castle and exhibitions open daily 1 Feb-24 Dec, 10am-6pm, visitor centre open daily 12 March- 31 Oct, 10am-5pm. Adults £6.50, concessions £5.50, family £16, under 5s free
Ring of Bright Water – Eilean Bàn, Kyle of Lochalsh
Otter lovers and those who wept buckets over Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water should make a pilgrimage to Eilean Bàn or White Island, which huddles beneath the Skye Bridge. Once home to lighthouse keepers and their families, naturalist and author Maxwell bought the cottages in 1963 but only moved here a year before his death, in 1969. Today, you can book guided tours of the six-acre nature reserve through the Bright Water Visitor Centre in Kyleakin. Follow the nature trails around the island, relax in the sensory garden, and poke around the Maxwell museum, an atmospheric recreation of his living room set up by Virginia McKenna (who starred in the film adaptation) before visiting Teko, the otter's memorial stone and the award-winning wildlife hide to scour the water for seals, otters and, in season, minke whales.
• 01599 530040, eileanban.org. Tours Monday to Friday at 2pm, April to October; must be booked in advance by phone. Tours at other times of the year can be arranged by email. Adults £7, children and concessions £6, family ticket (two adults and two children) £20. Access to the island is via a wooden gate set in the wall of the Skye bridge. All tours include the Maxwell museum, Stevenson Lighthouse and award winning wildlife hide
The Scottish Highlands have a bleak, brooding beauty. The fishing village of Plockton, however, is a little pocket of prettiness. Palm trees line the waterfront thanks to its famously mild climate – a result of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream and its sheltered position on the east-facing shore of Loch Carron. The National Trust for Scotland conservation village was built in the 19th century to try to stem emigration from the Highlands. Today, tourists flock here to visit the setting of BBC drama Hamish Macbeth, which stars Robert Carlyle as the Highland plod. Yachts moor in the bay, there are galleries to mooch around, pubs to crawl, boat trips during the summer from the harbour and regular guided walks of historic Plockton led by NTS rangers. (The walking tours visit the old pier and pontoons, the Brae with its crofts and ancient trees, the Open Air Church and the War Memorial.)
• Further information: plockton.com
Attadale Gardens, Strathcarron
Dubbed an artist's garden with its Monet-style bridges and waterfalls, lily-strewn pools fringed by verdant vegetation and contemporary sculptures, owner Nicky Macpherson re-designed the 20-acre gardens (originally laid out by Baron Schroder in the 19th century) to frame the jaw-dropping views over the sea to Skye after violent storms hit in 1980. The rocky paths winding beneath craggy cliffs weave through a tangle of conifers and bushy rhododendrons and are lush and lovely, the experience wonderfully low-key – the ticket office a garden shed with antlers mounted on the side. In the kitchen and herb gardens you can buy salad and vegetables for your tea before wandering on to the fern garden with its geodesic dome (one of the largest collections in Scotland), the shady rhododendron dell, tranquil Japanese garden and, in front of the elegant whitewashed house, a giant sundial, over 10 metres in diameter.
• 01520 722603, attadalegardens.com. Open 10am-5.30pm April-end October, closed Sundays. Adults £6, children £1, OAPS £4
Balmacara estate and woodland walks
There are DIY and ranger-led options for exploring this 2,550-hectare National Trust for Scotland estate. Hang a left heading towards Skye off the A87 signposted Lochalsh Woodland Garden to meander the sheltered walks along the shores of Loch Alsh through the majestic Scots pine, oak and beech trees intermingled with rhododendrons, bamboo, ferns, and hydrangeas. Swing right off the main road towards Balmacara Square and the new National Trust visitor centre. During the summer there are regular guided rambles around the traditional Highland estate (a mix of farmed croft land, wood and moorland) and from Plockton to Kyle of Lochalsh, but it's worth keeping an eye out for special events and themed walks throughout the year.
• 0844 4932233, nts.org.uk. Woodland Walks all year, daily 9am until dusk; Balmacara Square Visitor Centre: 1 April to 30 September, daily 9am-5pm (Fri 9am-4pm)
Wildlife cruises, Kyle of Lochalsh
The Seaprobe Atlantis is an award-winning glass-bottomed boat with an underwater viewing deck. You can gaze wide-eyed at the wildlife (dolphins, otters, whales, seals and seabirds) above and below the waves as you drift through the kelp forest with its starfish, crab, jellyfish and anemones, and motor out to Seal Island, a protected bird colony and HMS Port Napier, a second world war shipwreck.
• 0800 980 4846, seaprobeatlantis.com. One-hour trips: adult £12.99, youth (13-15) £7.99 children £6.99, family £38; two-hour trips: adult £24, youth £13.50, children £12.50, family £69
Ride the Kyle Line, Kyle of Lochalsh
Hop aboard the little Scotrail train for one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world (the Kyle Line was featured by Michael Palin in his TV series Great Railway Journeys of the World). The modern carriages might not be the most atmospheric but the views from the window as you snake towards the coast (looming mountains, rushing salmon-rich rivers, the steely waters of Loch Carron) more than make up for it. The spectacular 63-mile line from Dingwall to Kyle of Lochalsh was opened in 1897. Today, there are still three trains a day running back and forth from Inverness along the historic line (a two-and-a-half-hour journey). The Royal Scotsman and Orient Express are also occasional visitors while the Friends of the Kyle Line– who've fought to keep the line open – organise steam engine trips from time to time. At the end of the line, on the water's edge, there's a quirky little museum crammed with memorabilia and old black and white photos in the smart blue and white painted station on the harbour, a gift shop stocked with whisky and a restaurant.
• 01599 534824, kylerailway.co.uk. Day return from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness from £23.40 – to book call 08457550033 or visit a staffed station. Entry to the museum costs £1
"Road normally impassable in wintry conditions" reads the red and white sign as you approach the Bealach na Ba, one of the highest passes (626m, 2,054ft) in Britain and the way in to the remote Applecross peninsula. The drive is a highlight in itself as you wind slowly up the single-track route hugging the passing places to the summit before snaking down to the little string of cottages on the waterfront. Applecross shot to fame as the location for Monty Halls' first Great Escape on the BBC, when the TV presenter and marine biologist tried his hand at crofting. The Applecross Inn (applecross.uk.com/inn) already had quite a following, however, for its fresh seafood, live music and great atmosphere. The Potting Shed (applecrossgarden.co.uk), a restored walled kitchen garden and restaurant is another popular eating place after you've worked up an appetite hiking across the windswept landscape and beachcombing along the wild, white strands of sand.
Pony trekking in Glenshiel
Think soft velvety noses, shaggy mains, the heady smell of saddle soap and the reassuring squeak of leather as you saddle up for a trek into the mountains on a sturdy, sure-footed Highland pony. The Campbell family has been breeding ponies in Glenshiel for more than 100 years and now runs a small pony trekking centre offering one-hour treks along the pebbly shores of Loch Duich and through the Ratagan forest as well as all-day trail rides up into the hills for the more adventurous. And what better way to explore this wild, untamed landscape than on the back of a native pony as it picks its way over the rough terrain in the shadow of the Five Sisters of Kintail, a string of peaks, three of which are Munros, on a jagged ridge?
• 01599 511282, highlandponytrekking.co.uk. Pony treks £20pp per hour. Lessons, for ages six and over, £20 for 45 minutes
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk