DRUMNADROCHIT, Scotland — If you believe, you will see.
Singlehandedly — or should we say, single-finnedly — Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, has kept a brisk tourist business going in the Scottish Highlands for 80 years.
Giant tour buses trundle down the narrow roads. Passengers crane their necks to get a glimpse of — what? A hump, a head, a funny looking wave — anything to tell the folks back home.
Does everyone see the Loch Ness Monster?
"Everyone this high does," said a shopkeeper at the Clansman Hotel, grinning and raising her hand as high as her waist. "If you ask, they all say they saw Nessie. Everyone else is here just for the fun."
Of course, that's not really true. I would love to see Nessie, and I'm a grown-up.
Loch Ness, a narrow finger of water 25 miles long and 755 feet deep, is tucked way up in the Scottish Highlands with the heather and the moors. When the wind blows, waves roll and chop in mysterious ways, making it easy to believe in a sea serpent below.
I know this because I was on a tour boat fighting its way down the loch. Even under blue skies, our bow was awash in crashing head-on waves. Passengers got soaked.
"It's like the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls," one woman joked — except nobody has a raincoat.
At its quietest, Loch Ness is a calm, blue pool surrounded by green hills and quiet cliffs. Or so I've heard. But my experience was of a strong, powerful body of water, as deep as Lake Huron.
Salmon, trout, eels and Arctic char swim in its murky depths. Ducks and herons float on its surface. Deer live on the banks.
But in 1933, a local woman named Mrs. MacKay saw a whale-like creature in the loch, confirming strange sightings that date to AD 565. After that, everybody from a local priest to tourists spotted the Loch Ness Monster. That spawned fame, hoaxes, scientists with sonar, skeptics and believers.
Today, pretty much everyone accepts that it's rather unlikely that such a creature could exist in the northern latitudes of Scotland in a lake that was formed only 10,000 years ago during the last ice age — the same age as the Great Lakes.
But if you stay at Loch Ness, you'll find Nessie is very much alive. She's alive in the hopeful faces of boat passengers. She's alive in the Nessie-themed beer, magnets, plastic statues and silly souvenirs.
She's alive because we wish it so. And there's nothing wrong with that.
The very nicest surprise about Loch Ness is how very beautiful the region is. Drive there from Edinburgh (about 4 hours), and you pass through Cairngorms National Park. Established in 2003, the park's weird, lonely moorlands are covered with glorious purple heather as the summer ends. You come to the town of Inverness, only 16 miles from Cawdor Castle in Nairn, made famous by Shakespeare's Macbeth. From Inverness, travel the winding A-82 down the north side of Loch Ness.
Before this trip, I'd heard that the Loch Ness region was tacky, touristy and getting built-up. That is absolutely not the case. It's clean, fresh and at least 99 percent tasteful.
Most of the tourist action centers on the village of Drumnadrochit (Drum-na-DROCH-it), a scenic spot that could be plucked out of any Scottish cozy mystery. A little general store sells food and Nessie gifts, and the owner runs the town post office in the back. Across the street is Fiddler's restaurant, which stocks 600 different Scottish whiskies, served in a glass etched with the saying "I had a dram with Nessie."
Drive a couple miles further and you come to Urquhart Castle, a mournful 13th-Century ruin on Loch Ness. It is one of Scotland's top tourist attractions — but the actual draw of the castle has to be that it's the prime photo-op for Loch Ness, the castle a prop in the foreground.
Near the castle is the deepest part of the loch, 755 feet. It is the scene of many a claimed Nessie sighting.
In Drumnadrochit, I stopped at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a fairly well-done museum about the legend, lore and science of the Loch Ness Monster. I visited the Nessie gift shop, which puts the tack in tacky . I didn't get to the Nessieland Castle Monster Centre, another museum. The town was surrounded by horse farms, grazing cattle and green hills.
The weather this summer was not the best — cloudy and rainy, locals said. But it rarely snows and was surprisingly balmy in September.
In this part of the Scottish Highlands, even a palm tree can grow in your garden. Can you believe it?
IF YOU GO
From Edinburgh or Glasgow, it's a 4 to 4 1/2-hour drive to Loch Ness (don't listen to claims that it's 3).
Fly to nearby Inverness from London Gatwick, or take a train from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Loch Ness Clansman Hotel. Plaid carpet, old-fashioned, nothing super-special except the great view of Loch Ness (about $130/night or $150 for a loch view, www.lochnessview.com). The village of Drumnadrochit also has nice bed-and-breakfasts. (www.drumnadrochit.co.uk).
Or stay in Inverness, about 13 miles from Loch Ness attractions.
Fiddler's in Drumnadrochit. Fish chowder, Scotch broth, steaks and whisky (www.fiddledrum.co.uk).
Urquhart Castle: Open year-round but even if closed you can park and spy through the trees to get a good picture of Loch Ness and castle ruins (about $12 adult, $6 child, www.historic-scotland.gov.uk).
Museum: Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition : Video-rich museum explores history, legend and science of Loch Ness and Nessie (about $10 adult, $7 child, www.lochness.com).
Boat ride: Get out on Loch Ness for a one-hour tour with Jacobite Cruises, which sails from Clansman Harbour (about $18 adult, $13 child, www.jacobite.co.uk).
More of Loch Ness: Follow the A82 southwest past Urquhart Castle to visit other Loch Ness towns of Invermoriston and Fort Augustus.
Ambitious drivers can drive back up the other side of the loch on B862 and B85.
Wait until you get to Scotland to buy a good road map. In Michigan, I bought a Michelin Great Britain road map, but its scale was way too small (15.8 miles to 1 inch) to be of use in actual driving. In Edinburgh, I bought the Collins Touring Map of Scotland (HarperCollins UK, about $6). Its scale is 5 miles to 1 inch, and it shows freeways, major A roads and secondary B roads, plus tourist attractions. Recommended.
Driving in Scotland is similar to driving in England — and far easier than driving in Ireland. Roads are good and well-marked; just be alert at the big roundabouts.
Automatic transmission for your rental car is smart unless you are experienced driving on the left-hand side of the road.
Slow down in the rain. Locals drive fast even when it's pouring — 70 or 80 mph. They're used to it. You're not. Pull over if someone is tailgating and let him or her pass.