Jonathan Thompson joins a new kind of holiday, where the style of a movie like The Italian Job meets the Scottish Highlands.
Weekends don’t get much more British than this. Driving a Mini along a sweeping, empty road through the Scottish Highlands, the walkie-talkie on my dashboard crackles into life. “Pull over here, it’s time for a bonding moment.”
Our guide meant it literally. As we step out of the car, the view becomes instantly recognizable. It’s the valley from the movie Skyfall. Where Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Judi Dench’s ‘M’ gaze out over the picturesque moors and mountains of Glen Etive, before defending 007’s childhood home in a battle to the death. A ‘bonding’ moment indeed
The rest of our convoy pulls over one-by-one to take in the sunset-drenched panorama. There are seven cars in total, all shiny new Minis; all full of strangers.
This is a brand new trip from innovative British travel company Flash Pack, which specializes in a new type of holiday. Put simply, ‘flashpacking’ is a group adventure travel for those in their 30s and 40s who’ve outgrown the muddy trappings of backpacking, but not the intrepid, fun mentality behind it.
This particular group is made up of 15 flashpackers and guides. “The main problem is there was nothing out there for our age group before,” says 35-year-old Andrea Kantnik from Munich. “In my experience, ‘group travel’ meant people in their early twenties who were too drunk to talk properly, or pensioners who were too old to walk properly. This is a real gap in the market, and I’m glad somebody has finally filled it in style.”
The gap in the market isn’t the only thing that’s been filled —our itinerary over this three day trip is packed too. Fittingly, like so many traditional Scottish stories, it begins at the magnificent Scone Palace in Perth, a short drive from Edinburgh.
Home to the legendary “Stone of Destiny”, Scone Palace was the traditional crowning place of Scots Kings for centuries, from Macbeth to Robert the Bruce. Here, over lunch inside the palace, we become acquainted with our fellow flashpackers, before being introduced to our cars for the long weekend too (the briefing is largely about the Mini Countryman’s state-of-the-art Sat Nav system but I’ll be honest, I’m more interested in the ingenious fold-out picnic bench, fitted inside the luggage compartment).
Once we’ve been sorted into pairs and threes, we’re off: accelerating into the lush green hills, thick forests and craggy mountains which recently contributed to Scotland being crowned the most beautiful country in the world by Rough Guides.
The beauty of this trip is that the driving —itself— is part of the fun. Especially with Top Gear-style walkie-talkies in every glove compartment, ensuring the cars are in constant contact with each other and Flash Pack’s fun-loving co-founder Lee Thompson in the rear vehicle.
Our first destination is the pretty Bridge of Orchy, hidden in a picture-perfect valley off the road just south of Loch Tulla. But we’re not here to admire the view from the bridge, we’re here to jump off it.
Bridge swinging is best described as bungee jumping for beginners. You’re harnessed up, then climb out onto the side of the bridge before letting go and swinging backwards and forwards in the 12 meter chasm between the girders and the river. It’s a great deal of fun —and very wet.
Activities like bridge swinging are the key to flashpacking’s recipe of adrenaline, interaction and luxury. A composite which continues that evening around a roaring campfire at the foot of Ben Nevis —the tallest mountain in Britain—. Here, we’re served a delicious feast by a personal chef, before retiring to a cluster of boutique yurts and luxury wooden cabins for the night.
Our second day follows a similar pattern: adventure in the form of sea-kayaking among the white sandy islands and friendly seal colony of Arisaig Bay, before history in the shape of rugged Ardverikie Castle. The day is rounded off with a whisky and chocolate tasting session at Scotland’s highest distillery, Dalwhinnie, before yet another delicious Scottish meal, this time featuring the obligatory (and pleasingly tasty) “haggis, neeps and tatties.”
The following day, our final activity is one of the best, soaring through the trees of the forested Alvie Estate, down 14 death-defying zipwires. Our reward afterwards is a fun drive across the Cairngorms National Park to Fonab Castle —an ancient fortress now converted into a five star hotel and spa—.
By the end of the weekend, we’re all sad to hand back our car keys and bid farewell to our fellow flashpackers, flying back to our respective homes from Edinburgh Airport. In many ways it’s unsurprising that the trip was so much fun: we’ve been driving the most scenic roads in what is officially the world’s most beautiful country, according to the publication Rough Guide, making friends and tackling adventure sports on route. What —is— surprising is that this didn’t feel like a ‘solo’ holiday for a second. I guess that’s the beauty of flashpacking: holidaying by yourself should not mean going alone. In the right conditions, a gang of strangers quickly becomes a pack of friends.