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It never occurs to me to take holidays within the UK. For me, travel is synonymous with the word foreign, thus I confess that I am ignorant of the many beauty spots that are on my doorstep.

I crave the warmth of powdered sand between my toes and the sun on my brow. I yearn for new adventures and crave the tastes of exotic cuisines. Holidays at home do not come cheap and the weather is unreliable, therefore I need a guarantee that there will be a pot of gold waiting for me beyond the rainbow.

I spent a couple of idyllic holidays in St Andrews, between the innocent ages of fledgling independence and lack of responsibility, when summer felt like it would never end and life was so exhilarating, that sleep was nothing but an inconvenience. St Andrews is steeped in medieval history and was a magical place to explore. It’s well preserved streets scattered with ruins and monuments as reminders of its turbulent and bloody past. The Blue Flag, West Sands beach (made famous in the opening scenes of the movie Chariots of Fire) stretches nearly two miles, of uninterrupted golden sand, backed with dunes and the world-renowned golf course. In my minds eye, the memories of those halcyon days have remained so dear, that I daren’t run the risk of ruining them, by returning to the place where I was once felt such happiness.

Jonathan Phang

However, Scotland seemed a perfect place to ignite a passion for my country, so I was delighted to be invited aboard Belmond’s Royal Scotsman train and experience the Highlands. My maternal grandparents though both born in the Caribbean, had Highland roots, which made the thought of this journey all the more poignant.

I flew into Edinburgh and spent the day exploring Scotland’s proud capital, starting at the dramatic Castle, which towers majestically over the crags of an extinct volcano and from it’s peak, provides breathtaking panoramic views over the city and the Lothians. I strolled down the Royal Mile and around the atmospheric old town, marvelling at the architecture, heights, hollows and sandstone tenements. I sat on a bench in St Andrews Square and pondered Edinburgh’s beauty, whilst wishing that I had allotted more time to get to know this jewel of a city.

Before long it was time to catch my train. Upon arrival at Waverley station, my fellow guests and I were escorted along a red- carpeted platform, to the accompaniment of a Drum Major, piping “Flower of Scotland”. The first glimpse of the legendary train made passengers and onlookers alike, gasp with pleasure. The meticulously preserved carriages appeared as if straight out of the movies. The atmosphere on board was that of an Edwardian country house. Luxurious furnishings off set by wood panels and complimented with tartan upholstery. The sounds of tinkling crystal, whispering staff and champagne corks popping, mingled harmoniously with the gentle chatter of excited guest, as the train embarked on our journey.

Bagpipes-Flower of Scotland

Within minutes the ice was broken with my fellow guests and conversation along with champagne, flowed effortlessly. As the train traversed the iconic Forth Bridge, I went out on to the open-air observation platform to toast Edinburgh behind us and to salute the Kingdom of Fife and the Highlands ahead of us. The bracing salty air mixed with the angry sound of squawking seagulls, raged through me and although invigorating, the intoxicating sight of freshly baked scones, shortbread and Dundee cake being served back in the carriage, was too tempting to miss.

After tea, I settled in to my sumptuous stateroom, laid back on my double bed and watched the world go by. No amount of gilded fixtures and fittings, or epicurean delights, could upstage the drama and romance of the mystical vistas that unraveled outside my window. The Scottish Highlands are one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe and are dominated by rugged mountain ranges, ancient forests, lochs and glens of epic proportions. A land of stunning natural beauty, where red deer roam heather drenched hills and eagles rule the skies. Over three days and two nights, we toured Fife, Boat of Garten, The Cairngorms National Park, The Battlefields of Culloden, Pithlochry, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Dundee.

The Royal Scotsman is a joyously sociable train that has a maximum capacity of 36 passengers, and a staff ratio of 3 to 1, which means that guest are thoroughly looked after. The staffs are as much a part of the overall experience as the Highlands themselves. Nothing is too much trouble for them and their passion for the train and knowledge of the region is infectious.

Mealtimes are a tour de force, with Michelin standard food, freshly prepared in the train’s tiny galley kitchen and served in two dining cars on communal tables, seating 16 and 20 respectively. Locally sourced seasonal ingredients are promptly loaded on to the train at each stop. I ate like a king, indulging in dishes such as smoked salmon rolls filled with crab mouse, Cullen Skink, Aberdeen Angus beef fillet en croute, shortbread of every variety, with whiskey soaked porridge and kippers for breakfast. Wines are wisely paired with each course, and the all-inclusive bar closes with the last man standing.

Our last night culminated with folk singing in the bar and dancing the Gay Gordon on Dundee station platform at midnight. Eventually and reluctantly, we joined hands, sang Auld Land Syne and bid a tearful farewell.

Jonathan Phang Scotland

Kabayaki salmon

Serves 4

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

1½ tbsps sake

130ml (4½fl oz) mirin

65ml (2¼fl oz) caster sugar

130ml (4½fl oz) Japanese dark soy sauce

½ tsp West Indian pepper sauce

2 garlic cloves, finely grated

2½cm (1in) square of ginger, peeled and finely grated

4 skinless and boneless salmon fillets

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/gas 5.

To make the sauce, combine the sake and mirin in a saucepan then heat to boiling point to evaporate the alcohol.

Reduce the heat and stir in the sugar. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the soy sauce, pepper sauce, and grated garlic and ginger to the saucepan then stir. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 4-6 minutes until the sauce thickens to the consistency of golden honey.

Take the saucepan off the heat and cool before use.

Using a pastry brush, coat the salmon fillets generously with the sauce on all sides.

Place the fillets on a greased baking tray and bake on the top shelf of the oven 15 minutes.

Serve over mixed salad leaves as a starter.

Kabayaki salmon
Photo: Winfried Heinze

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Jonathan Phang

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