At first glance, you might get the wrong idea about Molly. With her camouflage hoodies and chunky boots, she could be a junior member of a survivalist militia. It’s only when she tries to do genuinely rugged stuff—like, say, climbing higher than two feet off the ground—that my 11-year-old daughter reveals herself to be the get-me-down-Daddy type.
So, when I took Molly on an adventure holiday, I was careful to temper the experience. The trip, which took us from the Scottish Highlands to the English heartland, was part Outward Bound program, part Downton Abbey episode—firepit dinners and afternoon teas, hiking trails and scented baths.
The story starts on a typical day in Edinburgh, the rain sheeting laterally along the Royal Mile. We are in Wedgwood, a fine-dining restaurant that specializes in wild local produce. I go for the wood pigeon starter and venison main, both of which come with a side of haggis. “What’s haggis?” Molly wants to know. “Pudding with heart and lungs in it,” I tell her. “I’ll have the gnocchi,” she says. We spend the night in the port of Leith, aboard Fingal, a decommissioned lighthouse tender that’s been transformed into a floating boutique hotel: art deco detailing, sweeping stairways, stand-alone tubs, along with a few clangy fixtures from the boat’s former life. I order a Shipwreck cocktail (vodka infused with plankton) and stand on the deck with Molly, watching a tanker inch along the horizon.
The next morning, after a breakfast of kippers and porridge, we take a train four hours north to Inverness, from where we are driven another hour up to the Falls of Shin. Here, we are deep in the Highlands, surrounded by dense woodland and craggy hills. People have traditionally come to the area for the fishing, or simply to watch the salmon trying (and mostly failing) to battle their way upstream.
The place where we’re staying is right beside the falls: a café and campsite opened a couple of years ago by Andy Waugh and Calum Mackinnon, best known for their Mac & Wild restaurants in London. The Falls of Shin outpost, as with the originals, focuses on quality regional produce (and whisky). Much of the meat comes from Andy’s family business, Ardgay Game, a few miles away.
We’re met in the café by Andy, who shows us to our accommodations: a large transparent plastic bubble, with a double bed at the center. (The bubble didn’t cope well with the blustery Highland weather, I learn after our trip, and is being replaced by a bunch of spherical tree houses and tubular cabins.) Nearby is the tent we’ll be occupying on our second night, situated on the roof of a Land Rover. Molly fizzes with excitement at the sight of it, despite being told that she won’t get to drive the vehicle around.
We dump our gear and head off to explore the forest. A few steps in, we enter a fairy-tale world of mossy trees and clumpy slopes, luminous in the speckled sunlight. I try to get Molly to appreciate the spectacle, but her attention has been caught by a slug the size of an enchilada. A little later, we go for a bike ride beside the River Shin, pausing to watch the leaping salmon, then it’s back to the camp for a round of mini golf and a spot of Scottish sunbathing, which intermingles ultraviolet rays and raindrops.
For dinner, our host has laid on one of Mac & Wild’s barbecue boxes, along with several bottles of craft beer. The site is deserted by the time Molly and I get around to lighting the fire, charring the meat and then eating it with our hands. It’s a fantastic meal, and it only gets better the following evening, when Andy demonstrates one of the experiences that can be arranged at the camp: a boat trip along picturesque Loch Migdale.
We moor the boat at a pebble beach and hike into the woods to pick chanterelles and wild blueberries. Along the way, Molly falls into a stream and—while I look on in helpless laughter—Andy jumps in to rescue her. Back at the beach, we light a fire and cook venison and veggies, consumed as the setting sun casts an orange tint on the hillsides. “It’s like the world’s most expensive postcard,” Molly says, surreptitiously discarding one of the mushrooms we picked.
We don’t sleep particularly well at the camp, but that’s mostly because we’re gazing up at the stars, or comically jostling for space, or addressing Molly’s need to know the source of every rustle and hoot outside. So it is, on the train journey back to England, we forego the customary Yahtzee tournament in favor of an extended snooze.
Our final stop is The Langley hotel in Buckinghamshire, 23 miles west of Central London. Occupying a recently renovated Georgian manor, The Langley is part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, and it lives up to the billing. From the marble-clad swimming pool to the princely drawing room, the hotel oozes elegance and ease. There are also 150 acres of gardens and forested parklands, designed by the famed 18th-century landscape architect Capability Brown.
After a champagne afternoon tea, we stroll around a serpentine lake, where we are joined by a herd of bullocks who, despite Molly’s repeated claim that “they’re going to trample us,” turn out to be more inquisitive than vicious. Later, we test her nerves in earnest at the nearby Windsor Great Park, where The Langley has arranged a horse-riding lesson.
Molly’s mount is a dainty little mare named Ash, but it still requires all of the instructor’s motivational skills to get her into the saddle. From here, we are led on a gentle woodland walk, Molly delivering a stream of non sequiturs aimed at keeping the horse from bolting: “Are you a dancer? You’re so good on your feet!” At the end of the lesson, she gives Ash a thank-you carrot and we head back to the hotel for dinner in the gilded Cedar restaurant.
Upstairs in our sumptuous room, Molly tells me she has a splinter in her finger, which we remove with a needle from the sewing kit and disinfect with a minibar bottle of small-batch gin. It’s not exactly Lewis and Clark, but it’s a start.