“We can take the high ground and possibly avoid the bog and the stream or take the easier low ground and probably end up in both,” explains our mountain guide Anna Danby as we look at our route along the Abhainn Rath – a stream trickling under the reach of Ben Nevis . Rain and sun come and go, leaving a changing patchwork of colors on the valley floor below.
We choose the higher ground, choose our way along the contours and admire six deer that silently survey us from a hill 20 meters away. Once we are on the valley floor, the petrified tree trunks, the bog-preserved remains of a forest that filled this landscape 7,000 years ago, protrude from rust-red and peat-black gullies. Baby frogs jump in all directions. Away from the main hiking trails, there is no one else in sight.
Twenty-four hours earlier I had seen Great Britain pass by train from Brighton to Edinburgh and on to the Highlands. At Spean Bridge, an unassuming village often overlooked by visitors for Fort William down the road, I meet Sara Mair Bellshaw, founder of new tour operator Slow Adventure, whose first tour I’m here to try. “This is our first trip and it’s also my hometown,” she says. “We’ve all come to appreciate the people and experiences on our doorstep much more during Covid-19, and now I get to share my local discoveries with visitors.”
The first part of the adventure involves three days of hiking and wild camping with Anna (who runs Wild Roots guiding), departing from Spean Bridge towards Corrour – a vast rolling estate home to Britain’s most remote railway station. After that, winded and slightly euphoric, we head back to Spean Bridge by train for part two, which focuses on hyper-local food and beer experiences, with Tirindrish House B&B as our base. A tour and tasting at Glen Spean Brewing Co with co-founder Ian Peter, and a feast of sustainably sourced game and garden produce at the home of Great Glen Charcuterie founder Anja Baak are highlights.
Wild camping and sipping wine in a beautiful Georgian manor house might not seem like natural bedfellows, but these experiences share an ethos of slow travel – a thoughtful deep dive rather than a box-check, showcasing local organizations from different sectors.
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After their plans were halted by Covid, Sara started Slow Adventure with Jane Stuart-Smith (who previously owned slow food restaurant White House on the west coast of Scotland) in late 2021 and launched it this summer. The goal is to help people explore lesser-known destinations, including Jämtland Härjedalen in Sweden and Valtellina in northern Italy, spend money on local and micro-experiences, and immerse themselves in nature and society. The business was inspired by the EU-funded academic SAINT (Slow Adventure in the Northern Territories) project (which Sara project-led): it worked with small businesses across northern Europe to develop slow adventure experiences that improve the well-being of local communities, nature, and visitor.
Jane was keen to get involved, having seen first-hand the damage tourism can do to small rural communities. “In Morvern, where I live, on the west coast of Scotland, there has been an increase in the number of visitors staying in caravans or self-catering accommodation for one night and then moving on, contributing nothing to the local area apart from sometimes leaving their rubbish sit. ,” she said. Sara adds that what has happened to places like Skye and the North Coast 500 route in Scotland, where destinations have been marketed without proper buy-in from the local community, causing a significant strain on local infrastructure, is a motivator.
“We want to enable rural communities to shape nature-based tourism and adventure travel in the local area so that it can be a thriving place for all,” said Sara. Rather than “vendors”, Slow Adventure’s local hosts are known as members, to reflect their role in shaping the overall experience. Connecting small-scale local businesses and travelers in search of meaningful connection is at the heart of the plan.
Embracing the slow ethos gives companies the opportunity to deliver a more positive impact on the ground
Slow Adventure is not the only travel business to embrace the growing trend for slower experiences. Recognizing that much tourism was unsustainable pre-pandemic due to carbon emissions and overtourism, embracing the slow ethos gives businesses the opportunity to deliver a more positive impact on the ground. According to Hospitality Insights, slow travel will grow 10% year-on-year, and a recent survey by publisher Hidden Scotland discovered that 83% of people traveling to Scotland are looking for slow travel experiences. Sales of Bradt’s Slow Travel guides doubled last year as more people look for local, responsible and “experiential” travel, according to boss Adrian Phillips.
This summer, Much Better Adventures (MBA) will run its first hut-to-hut trek in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa, with a local mountain guide taking hikers to visit small cheese makers and cider factories, focusing on the less-visited south of the region. MBA co-founder Sam Bruce says: “Joining locally-led tours provides one of the best ways to explore beyond the surface of a place. It leads to a far greater understanding and appreciation of the details of its culture, history and traditions.”
Over in the Balkans, Intrepid has also created a group travel itinerary that focuses on traditional and local produce in mountain villages and towns in Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. General manager Zina Bencheikh says: “By visiting amazing home chefs and local producers, you are essentially spreading the benefits of tourism to those who need it most. These hyperlocal experiences are not always easy to find, but they are the most authentic and rewarding.”
Related: Wildland: inside the Scottish glen where nature has been set free
Tourist boards also get involved. Visit Sweden promotes the new 44-mile-long Gotaleden hiking trail between Gothenburg and Alingsås in western Sweden. A “meet the locals” project connects walkers with local experiences, such as horse riding and farm stays, and local producers offer coffee (coffee, cake and a chat) stops along the way. Last year, Visit Scotland launched an international post-Covid campaign to encourage visitors to “slow down, recharge, escape and enjoy immersive and sustainable tourism experiences”.
Slow Adventure certainly seems to do just that. I had never heard of Spean Bridge, but by the end of the trip I had crossed the village several times, explored the countryside with a local mountain guide and been welcomed into several homes. I left hugging hosts like old friends, hoping our paths would cross again. It’s hospitality in its truest form, which is what going slow is all about.
The Scotland Walking and Food Culture tour costs £772 for five days.