Scotland's beautiful, sparsely populated border country is seen at its best on this "secret" route to Edinburgh. Most of the 100 miles avoids traffic by following minor roads over the lonesome hills.
Turn off the M6 motorway in Carlisle, and leave the official A7 tourist route in Langholm, where Thomas Telford was apprenticed as a stonemason. Born in 1757, the shepherd's son became Britain's greatest road builder since the Romans went home. Thomas Telford Road takes the B709 up Eskdale. After weaving in and out of woodlands, you encounter one of Britain's biggest surprises at Eskdalemuir: the Western world's first Tibetan monastery. Known as Samye Ling-"The Inconceivable Place"-it was founded in 1967 by two Buddhist abbots who had fled their homeland.
The B709 becomes little more than a single-track teaser for a few miles and tops 1100 feet before sweeping down to Ettrick beside a fast-flowing stream. Be sure to follow the B709 where it turns left, just beyond the Tushielaw Inn. This inspirational stretch of road dashes along a broad valley and over yet more hills to historic Traquair House.
Flick left and right through Innerleithen, then gallop into the Moorfoot Hills with eyes peeled to avoid colliding with big-horned sheep. Switching from the B709 to B7007 is like leaving an old friend. By way of compensation, as you crest the Moorfoot Hills in good weather, the views sweep far beyond Edinburgh to the southern Highlands.
Scotland's capital is Britain's most-visited city after London, but the abiding memory is of driving through country that inspired poets and nurtured young Telford. He walked this way in 1780, carrying his stonemason's tools to work on Edinburgh's beautiful New Town, now a World Heritage Site.
Number 31 Howard Place, Carlisle (011-44- 1228- 597-080; www. number31. freeservers.com). Small, tasteful B&B near the town center.
Traquair House, Innerleithen (011- 44-1896-830-323; www.traquair.co.uk). B&B in Scotland's oldest inhabited castle.
Radisson SAS, Edinburgh (011- 44-131-557- 9797; www. radissonsas. com). A modern hotel in the Old Town.
Do visit Carlisle Castle (011-44- 1228-591-922; www.english-heritage.org.uk) for a taste of the border's turbulent history.
Do drive up Witta Hill in Langholm for mind-blowing views, a tribute to poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and a memorial to Sir John Malcolm.
Don't leave Edinburgh without tasting porridge, haggis, and a fish called Arbroath smokey.
Eat & drink
No. 10, Carlisle (011-44-1228- 524-183). The specialties here include venison.
Tushielaw Inn, Tushielaw (011-44-1750- 62205; www. tushielaw-inn.co.uk). Snug pub, est. 1750.
Forth Floor, Edinburgh (011-44-131- 524-8350; www. harveynichols.com). Dining in one of the city's top shops.
Scottish Borders Tourist Board (011-44-870-608-0404; www.scot-borders.co.uk).
Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board (011-44-1506-832-121; www.edinburgh.org).
Telford's Britain, by Derrick Beckett, David & Charles.
Edinburgh the Best! by Peter Irvine, Penguin.
What we drove
Comfort and agility made the Ghia version of the new-look Ford Focus-the kind you can rent in the U.K. but can't buy in the States-an excellent choice for this exhilarating romp across southern Scotland. Britain's fuel is brutally expensive-about $6 per gallon-but the long-striding Focus's 2.0-liter turbo-diesel and six-speed manual combined economy and refinement, with 134 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque.