Jonathan Thompson joins fellow 30-somethings on a solo group driving holiday through the Highlands.
There’s a funny thing about the Moot Hill at Scone. This ancient ridge – which Scottish kings ascended to be crowned on the Stone of Destiny – isn’t natural. Rather, the stately hillock was created by nobles dropping fistfuls of soil from home, before kneeling in it to bend their will – and their lands – to the new king. As the list of monarchs grew, so did the hill.
As such, Moot Hill – the scene of so many beginnings – feels an apt place to start dishing the dirt on our own Scottish journey. Like the coronations of old, participants have travelled from far and wide to stand on Moot Hill today. But instead of a knot of muddy-kneed nobles, they’re a group of well-dressed professionals from places like Philadelphia and New Orleans, London and Munich. And, in lieu of the dirty business of kingmaking, they’re here to bend their will to a decidedly more fun pursuit: Flashpacking.
Best described as group adventure travel for those who’ve outgrown the grubby realities of backpacking – but not the intrepid, fun mentality behind it – flashpacking is named after the innovative London travel company driving the trend – the Flash Pack. With more and more people settling down in their 30s and 40s now, they’ve got a captive – and growing – market.
“I’ve been looking for a holiday like this for ages,” says 35-year-old Andrea from Munich, as we descend Moot Hill towards spectacular Scone Palace. “In my experience, group travel means people in their early twenties too drunk to talk properly, or pensioners too old to walk properly. Where’s the middle ground?”
That middle ground is precisely where we find ourselves, in the courtyard at Scone Palace, surrounded by a fleet of MINI Countryman cars. This is the Flash Pack’s latest holiday: An adventure-packed road trip through the Scottish Highlands over a long weekend.
After becoming acquainted with our fellow flashpackers – there are 12 of us in total – we’re shuffled into pairs and threes and helped to set our sat navs. Then we’re off, accelerating into the sumptuous countryside.
Part of the success of this trip is that the driving itself becomes part of the fun, rather than simply a means to an end. Especially with Top Gear-style walkie-talkies in every glove compartment, ensuring the cars are in constant contact with each other and the Flash Pack’s co-founder Lee Thompson, bringing up the rear. Our first destination is the Bridge of Orchy, spanning a picturesque gorge 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 basically bungee jumping for beginners. Fully harnessed, we crawl out onto the side of the bridge before letting go and swinging into the 30ft chasm between road and river. It’s a great deal of fun – and very wet.
It’s also an excellent bonding experience, as we cajole, applaud and photograph each other. Those few moments in the air completely reset my perspective, from an uptight city dweller in a group of strangers, to part of a road gang – with its own embryonic in-jokes.
Activities like this are key to flashpacking’s central pillars; adventure, adrenaline and luxury. It’s a composite which continues in style that evening around a roaring campfire at the foot of Ben Nevis. Here, we’re served a mouthwatering dinner by a personal chef, before retiring to cosy yurts and boutique log cabins for the night.
The rest of the weekend follows a similar pattern; physical challenges (add sea-kayaking and zip-lining), magnificent castles (add Ardverikie and Fonab – where we stay on the final night), incredible food (plus a whisky and chocolate tasting at Dalwhinnie, the UK’s highest distillery) and some frankly phenomenal driving through Highland scenery.
The Countryman is nippy and fun on these wild, empty roads and predictably, everybody wants to drive. One of our best finds, late on day one, is that the MINIs come pre-programmed with ‘100 Road Trip Tracks’. Cue Bon Jovi at top volume with the windows wound down as we screech past a herd of startled-looking Highland cattle.
By Sunday afternoon, to be honest, we’re all rather upset to be handing back our car keys. “This is like the Borrow My Doggy of road trips,” jokes Andrea. “We run about with them all weekend, then get to hand the goods back all muddy and smelly afterwards.”
We’ve been driving on some of the most incredible roads in Europe, tackling adventure sports and staying in extraordinary accommodation.
What is surprising is that this didn’t feel like a ‘solo’ holiday at all.
Perhaps that’s the point of flashpacking – holidaying by yourself doesn’t have to mean holidaying alone.