By Janice Hopper

Sometimes in life it’s good to have a mission, a purpose, something to pursue with passion and vigour. For kids, and big kids, going on the hunt for Nessie brings a sense of adventure and ambition to a trip to Inverness and Loch Ness. Having seen episodes of children’s programmes ‘Postman Pat’ and ‘Go Jetters’, both featuring Nessie, my three year old son declared that he wanted to track her down. I calmly agreed. Having your family, especially tantrum prone preschoolers, engaged with a trip, excited about exploring the Scottish countryside before you’ve even set off, sounded like a win-win situation, but when I started to research further it turns out there’s a plethora of attractions, cruises and accommodation on offer in the area, all geared at the young (and not so young) Nessie hunter. Choice is a wonderful thing and far preferential over a dearth of options, but it can be overwhelming. Loch Ness is vast, approximately 23 miles long, so ensuring that planned activities, their duration, sailing times, opening hours and accommodation all compliment one another is essential in creating a realistic and enjoyable itinerary for all ages. Having figured out a workable schedule, CLS is willing to share our recommendations, doing all the hard work so you don’t have to!

Get on the water

If you’re taking your Nessie pursuit seriously then standing onshore won’t suffice, it’s time to discover your sea (or loch) legs. Loch Ness is a stunning stretch of water with breathtaking scenery to experience and, putting the monster to one side, setting sail is the best way to drink it all in. At 10.45am we arrived at the Clansman Harbour, a swift fifteen minute drive south from Inverness on the east coast of the loch, for an 11.00am sailing. Even at the carpark, children start to get excited as a huge Nessie statue awaits them. As they frantically climb on its back every parent will read the ‘Please do not climb on Nessie’ sign and will proceed to, equally frantically, dislodge their kids from the monster.

At the harbour we collected our tickets from the Jacobite Cruises booking office and each child was given an activity bag. As we waited in the shelter for the vessel to arrive, the boys coloured in pictures of the monster and carried their little bags with pride.

Our catamaran, the Jacobite Warrior, docked. Customers filed onboard choosing either indoor or outdoor seating. We’d selected the ‘Freedom’ tour which has sonar onboard to search the deep and offers a thirty minute sail (a great duration for little ones) before it arrives at the historic Urquhart Castle. An hour is spent exploring the ruined fortress, again an ideal length of visit for mini tourists, before embarking on the return leg of the journey.

On the outward sail the children’s eyes were glued to the water looking for a sighting of the monster. They ventured outdoors to the bow of the catamaran and clung to the railings in the wind for as long as they could endure. The water can be choppy so adrenaline does run high. The Jacobite Warrior is kitted out with a cafe so, as the adults indulged in a caffeine fix, the tots had a bite to eat, and within minutes Urquhart Castle appeared on the horizon.

Urquhart Castle

A dark outline on the shores of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle is not only rich in social, military and political history, ideal for wildlife spotting and photography but, from a kid’s perspective, it’s the fairytale ruined castle.

Destroyed by Government troops garrisoned here during the Jacobite uprising it’s strategic position on a rocky promontory makes it an ideal vantage point for Nessie fanatics. Heading straight for Grant Tower we climbed the spiral staircase to peer out over miles of water for a tantalising glimpse of the monster.

When she didn’t appear my son began to realise what a gargantuan task he’d taken on for such a little boy. Exploring the rest of the castle, from its stone-throwing ‘trebuchet’, to the prison cell, and the little beach at its base, we took some timeout. Stopping by the modern visitor centre (with facilities, shop and cafe) we prepared to board the Warrior once more.

On the return leg I realised that what’s so endearing about children is that they don’t need to see something to believe in it. My son suggested, without a hint of disappointment, that Nessie was probably busy underwater, eating fish, sleeping or watching television. Her whereabouts will remain a mystery for us.

Learn the history of the loch

Having returned onshore just after 1.00pm we drove five minutes to the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition in Drumnadrochit. A casual soup and sandwich style lunch is available at its laid back Cobbs Cafe.

This exhibition, to its credit, takes Loch Ness seriously, it’s not a gimmick or a play zone. From John Cobb fatally attempting to beat the world water speed record in 1952, to Lloyd Scott completing the Loch Ness marathon by walking the length of the loch underwater and raising over one million pounds for charity, a lot has happened on this epic stretch of water.

The centre also charts the expeditions and technology used to search for Nessie, and features eye-witness film interviews, within a respectful historical context. Whilst little ones may be too young to fully appreciate the information before them, for older children and adults there’s a lot to be learned. The colourful gift shop, stacked high with Nessie soft toys is an Aladdin’s cave for monster enthusiasts. And if you’re lucky with the weather then, armed with a few toys and books, it’s possible to retire to the centre’s garden to play and read outdoors.

Return to base camp

By this time, around 4.00pm, our mini explorers were tired, windswept and full of tales of adventure. Finding a base camp to tie in with our monstrous expedition is a key part of well organised family travel. Whilst there is an array of rural retreats to choose between we opted for self-catering in the heart of Inverness. The Highland Apartments by Mansley are contemporary and sleek with excellently furnished kitchens, ensuite shower rooms adjacent to the master bedroom, secure parking and lifts to all floors. The decking with river views sealed the deal. On the first evening it was possible to enjoy the city lights, dining at the nearby Mustard Seed restaurant which prides itself on using local produce and offers a very economical two course menu for £13.95 between 5.00-7.00pm. Starters include Isle of Mull cheddar and caramelised shallot tart, a typical main is their low braised beef and Black Isle red kite casserole. The second night, exhausted, we cooked at the apartment - saving the money and energy that dining out with children entails. As the little ones slept in their own bedroom, and we collapsed in the living room with a glass of wine, we realised that we may not have found Nessie but, cheesy as it sounds, we had created some great memories in the Scottish countryside.

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