The neat and ordered town of BALLATER, attractively hemmed in by the river and fir-covered mountains, was where Queen Victoria first arrived in Deeside by train from Aberdeen back in 1848; she wouldn't allow a station to be built any closer to Balmoral, eight miles further west. Although the line has long been closed, the town's rather self-important royalism is much in evidence with oversized "By Appointment" crests sported above the doorways of most businesses from the butcher to the newsagent.
Ballater is an excellent base for local walks and outdoor activities. There are numerous hikes from Loch Muik (pronounced "mick"), including the well-worn but strenuous all-day trek up and around Lochnagar (3789ft), the mountain much painted and written about by the current Prince of Wales. Good-quality bikes can be rented from Cabin Fever (Tel:013397/54004; £15 a day), beside the station on Station Square, or Cycle Highlands (Tel:013397/55864; £15 a day, or £35 a day for full suspension) at 16 Bridge St.
Good-quality bunkhouse accommodation with breakfast is available at the Schoolhouse, Anderson Rd (Tel:013397/56333, Web: www.theschool-house.com ; Price: Under ₤40), complete with ghost walks and storytelling, and there are plenty of reasonable B&Bs in town, including Inverdeen House on Bridge Square (Tel:013397/55759, Web: www.inverdeen.com ; Price: ₤51-60), which offers a wide choice of breakfasts, most involving local produce and home baking.
There are numerous places to eat, from smart hotel restaurants to bakers and coffee shops: the Green Inn (Tel:013397/55701, Web: www.green-inn.com ; Price: ₤61-70) is pricey but excellent with locally sourced game on the menu, while a couple of miles east of Ballater at Cambus O'May the Crannach Coffee Shop and Gallery (closed Mon) has good coffees, snacks and light meals, as well as superb cakes and bread from their in-house organic bakery.