The enormous parking lot is indicative of the public's appreciation of Balmoral Castle, one of Queen Elizabeth II's favorite family retreats. Only the formal gardens, the ballroom, and the carriage hall are on view, with their exhibitions of royal artifacts, commemorative china, and native wildlife. Thanks to Victoria and Albert, who built the house to Prince Albert's design, stags' heads abound, the bagpipes wailed incessantly, and the garish Stewart tartan was used for
everything from carpets to chair covers. A more somber Duff tartan, black and green to blend with the environment, was later adopted.
Queen Elizabeth II follows her predecessors' routine in spending a holiday of about six weeks in Deeside, usually from mid-August to the end of September. During this time Balmoral is closed to visitors, including the grounds. You can take a guided tour in November and December; if the weather is crisp and bright, the estate is at its most dramatic and romantic. You're only allowed a peek inside, but the Royal Cottage is where Queen Victoria spent much of her time. You can see the table where she took breakfast and wrote her correspondence.
Around and about Balmoral, which is 7 miles west of Ballater, are some notable spots—Cairn O'Mount, Cambus O'May, and the Cairngorms from the Linn of Dee—and some of them may be seen on pony-trekking expeditions, which use Balmoral stalking ponies and go around the grounds and estate. Tempted by the setting? Balmoral Castle has five cottages (some very large) for rent by the week at certain times. They are atmospheric but can be basic.