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Balmoral Castle: Vacationing with the queen

By Jill O'Brien, CNN
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Tue August 6, 2013
The Royal Standard flies from the turrets of Balmoral Castle in Ballater, Scotland, when the Queen is in residence. Cottages on Balmoral Estate are available for rent to regular vacationers. The Royal Standard flies from the turrets of Balmoral Castle in Ballater, Scotland, when the Queen is in residence. Cottages on Balmoral Estate are available for rent to regular vacationers.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cottages on the grounds of Balmoral Castle are available to the public for rent
  • The royal estate in the Scottish highlands is a favorite retreat of Queen Elizabeth II
  • Sightings of the royal family are possible for visitors to the estate
  • The cozy cottages are more rustic than the royal digs

(CNN) -- As the world watched and waited for little Prince George to make his royal way into the world in London, Queen Elizabeth II was among those wishing the baby would hurry up. The reason? "I'm going on holiday," the queen said days before the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to the future king on July 22.

Thankfully, Prince George was born just in time for the queen to begin her official holiday last week at the royal family's Scottish retreat, Balmoral Castle. The queen and members of the royal family will spend the next two months at her 50,000-acre estate in the Scottish highlands. The castle was originally built by Queen Victoria and by all accounts of both historians and those who work on the estate, it holds a very special place in the queen's heart. That's likely because it offers her a level of privacy that she cannot find anywhere else.

Every year at this time she travels to the heart of the Cairngorms National Park in Royal Deeside, just outside the small town of Ballater. Here, behind large metal gates that keep the public outside for most of the royal family's visit, she has the privacy to stroll with her corgis around the gardens, catch up on correspondence at her Honka Hut (a pine summer cottage that was a gift from the Finnish government and is one of the queen's favorite spots on the estate), go fly fishing on the river Dee, or take in a round of golf on her private course.

But here's a secret that few people seem to know: You can have the same vacation. I'm not talking about visiting the estate for the day, as many people do when it's open to the public. Nope, you can move in. Settle down in one of five cottages on the estate, and you'll have access to everything that makes Balmoral so special.

The modest Colt Cottages are located on the castle grounds and sleep up to five guests.
The modest Colt Cottages are located on the castle grounds and sleep up to five guests.

I speak from experience, having just returned from two weeks in one of the Colt Cottages. It wasn't my first visit to the castle; I've visited every year since I first learned about the holiday cottages four years ago. While the Colt Cottages are the smallest cottages available to rent, they are my favorite because of their close proximity to the castle -- just a couple hundred yards away. If you are looking for more room, there are larger cottages to choose from, all rented on a weekly basis.

The largest cottage is Alltnaguibhsaich Lodge, which sleeps up to 13 people and sits farther away from the castle on the shores of Loch Muick. Rent for the cottages start around $750 a week (480 pounds), and vary depending on which cottage you choose and the time of the year. And you don't have to leave your dogs at home, they are welcome during your stay. The cottages are closed for most of August, September and early October for the royal family's official visit. The cottages are charming, comfortable and fully equipped, but don't expect crystal chandeliers and marble bathrooms. Although you're at Balmoral, it's more rustic than the Ritz.

People often ask me what I do for two weeks in the highlands. Like the royal family, my vacation at the castle is spent outside, enjoying the natural beauty of the region. Practice your fly fishing on the River Dee by hiring the queen's ghillie as your guide for the day. Bring your clubs and play a round of the estate's private golf course. Or just wander around the estate, past waterfalls and through the ancient Caledonian forests.

Thanks to the fact that this area is so far north (same latitude as southern Alaska) it stays light until around 10 p.m. during the summer. So grab a book and a picnic basket to enjoy dinner on the castle lawn. Grill some fresh fish and have a barbeque on the banks of the river. These excursions are only available to you, as a guest on the estate. After a couple of days it's hard not to feel like royalty.

When you are finally ready to leave the estate, you can mingle with the locals at any of the cafes and pubs in the nearby villages of Ballater and Braemar. In addition to offering fresh, locally sourced food, both offer remarkably good shopping. There are several art galleries showcasing local artists, bookshops stocked with everything you'd want to read about the region and country shops where you'll be able to stock up on Harris Tweeds, Hunter boots and Barbour coats. If you want a real taste of Highland whiskey, there are tours and tastings at the Royal Lochnagar distillery, less than a mile from the estate, which has been producing whiskey since the mid 19th century.

It's when the castle closes to the public at five o'clock that you really appreciate the uniqueness of staying at Balmoral. Without "tourists" around, the castle grounds are all yours to explore. The only thing you might worry about is running into your landlord.

That's exactly what happened to me this summer while taking an evening walk around the castle.

Several loud barking corgis ran up to say hello. It took a minute to realize that the elderly woman walking the dogs was Queen Elizabeth II. But this wasn't a typical celebrity sighting. I didn't take out my camera for a picture or ask for an autograph. We just waved, she called the dogs back, and both of us went back to enjoying our vacation at Balmoral Castle.

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