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THINK Aberdeen and what comes to mind? Its offshore oil industry, perhaps, or its nickname – the Granite City?

Football followers might know it as the place where Sir Alex Ferguson forged his managerial reputation before heading south of Hadrian’s Wall – with some wishing the wall had proved more of an obstacle.

A whirlwind three-day stay in Aberdeen proved it to be the centre of an area offering a rich variety of history, culture, education and entertainment.

Our visit started at a gentle enough pace with a guided tour around the beautifully preserved 16th century Crathes Castle, whose true fascination lies in it having been owned and lived in by several generations of a single family – the Burnetts – before being gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in the middle of the last century.

From the grandeur of the High Hall to the cold small room used to lock up prisoners waiting to be tried by the Laird, paintings, ornaments and photos tell the 350-year tale of the Burnett family, who still retain the Family Room for their occasional use.

Sadly there was no time to explore the magnificent looking gardens before returning to Aberdeen itself and a guided walk around the city in the company of Andy Milligan of Silver City Tours.

Here is a man not just knowledgeable but also passionate about his home city and his eulogies about Aberdeen’s impressive architecture and history were spiced with invective against the local council for failing, on occasion, to match his level of pride. The Marischal College building, the world’s second largest granite structure (a Madrid cathedral is the biggest) with its excessively decorative crenellations causes him particular anguish. Its innards decay as a squabble goes on as to whether finance can be found to rescue it for the public’s use or if it will be thrown to the mercy of commercial predators.

Andy is living proof that this city with stone at its heart does not have a heart of stone and as we take a break in one of its many pubs he takes time to exult in the fact that his father played schoolboy football with one of Aberdeen’s favourite sons, footballing legend Denis Law.   Later that night we passed a window of Waterstone’s book shop entirely dedicated to Law’s autobiography as we strolled to Café 52, an intimate avant garde restaurant providing food of refreshing invention and imagination.

Subterranean, dimly-lit restaurants might prompt a fear that you’re being prevented from seeing what’s being served. Not here. Chef and owner Steve Bothwell strolls regularly among the tables to chat with customers as he might do his friends – which is, by the end of the meal, what you feel like.

Such friendliness extends to the adjacent Old Kings Highway pub where a couple of tons during a game of darts impress enough to earn me an invitation to throw for the local team the following week.

Sadly, we have only two days more in Aberdeen and much still to do, so an early start was necessary the next morning to get myself and one other visitor to the Kings Links golf course, a municipal whose first tee sits in the shadow of Aberdeen’s Pittodrie stadium.

This may not be the most picturesque or challenging of courses but with five days’ play on offer for £ 50 to holidaymakers it would provide the addict with the chance to  get in an early morning round before attending to family duties, such as pony trekking, perhaps, the alternative and seemingly more popular pursuit on offer that morning.

My partner Shirley had never ridden before but – occasional moans about sore buttocks apart – thoroughly enjoyed an hour-long ride at the Hayfield Equestrian Centre, which offers instruction for riders of all ages and abilities.

Where Café 52 uses shadow to enhance intimacy, the Foyer Restaurant Gallery is all high ceilings and bright, natural light. No surprise, of course, once you realise that it is both restaurant and art gallery, a combination whose fascination is taken one step further by the fact that it is financed and run by a charity aimed at helping homeless people to have the chance to earn a living and have somewhere to live.

Suppress any subconscious link you may have made to soup kitchens – the Foyer, a converted church, has more the feel of the sort of restaurant the Sex and the City quartet would frequent should it be in New York, although they’d probably talk too much to appreciate the fine food on offer.

Well, I can account for the main course – superb seabass – but there was no time for a dessert as the afternoon’s missions were distributed and ours took us to unfortunately brief visits to, first, the Art Gallery and then Satrosphere, a hands-on science museum run by Halifax-born Gillian Lomas.

Impressive as the gallery is, younger families are more likely to be drawn to Satrosphere where science is brought to life with a series of exhibits which pose a question, demand some hands-on activity and then explain the science involved.

Since fish is supposed to be good for the brain it was appropriate that we dined that night at the Ashvale Fish Restaurant, similar in pricing and quality to such as Murgatroyd’s or Harry Ramsden’s, before being guests at a ceilidh at the Woodend Barns Centre in nearby Banchory, whose doors are always open to visitors.

Our third and final day began with one of those moments which make travelling so worthwhile, a visit to a castle with the most breathtaking setting I have seen.

Dunnottar Castle is a clifftop ruin where the difficulty of access – a steep descent is followed by an even steeper climb – is a toll well worth paying. Franco Zeffarelli’s Hamlet was shot here to add another layer to its history which, to be fully appreciated, needs longer than we were able to afford.

A drive into Stonehaven took us forward in time, although not entirely up to date, for morning refreshment was taken at the Carron Tea Rooms, an art deco building lovingly restored to its 1937 splendour by local builder Jack Rowan and his wife Jean at a cost of £1m.

Taking tea and cake is a pleasure not to be missed. Given his reported habit for teacup throwing, only Jack and Jean will know whether Alex Ferguson has been made welcome there.

However, he is still a very popular visitor to our penultimate port of call, Pittodrie, where a tour of the stadium including the dressing rooms preceded an excellent meal as executive guests at the match with Livingston.

Sadly for Dons fans, the lavish hospitality extended to us was later mirrored by the home players, allowing Livingston a comfortable win.

The day was to end with more – and probably equally unimpressive – sporting endeavour at one of Aberdeen’s main focal points on a Saturday night, the Miami Beach Bar and Grill which nestles alongside the city’s beach (yes, Aberdeen has a holiday beach).

Here a now not unusual mix of restaurants, bars, bowling alley and pool tables allows some end-of-week steam to be let off.

With two universities, nightlife is not surprisingly a thriving key element of the city. Limited time meant we only scratched the area’s surface and were unable to relax and enjoy our plush accommodation at Skene House, one of three all-suite properties in the city. Including two bedrooms, sitting room and fully-fitted kitchen, it would make the perfect base for a family visit to the area.


Published: January 24, 2004

Picture: VisitAberdeen Picture: VisitAberdeen Picture: VisitAberdeen

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Aberdeen update Picture: Ray Smith/VisitAberdeen