Five Ferries: Off the beaten track in Kintyre and Cowal

AD: This trip was sponsored by West Coast Waters, a campaign to celebrate Scotland’s diverse west coast ahead of VisitScotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters (#YCW2020). Having grown up and spent almost all of my childhood holidays on the west coast, sharing my love for this part of Scotland was a blogging project dream-come-true.

We first went to Kintyre over three years ago at the start of spring. It’s a long, thin peninsula which hugs the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde; an area which belies its remoteness with its proximity, as the bird flies, to Glasgow. By wing you’d be there in an instant, but from Scotland’s biggest city it’s over three hours’ drive to Kintyre. Unless, of course, you’re already on the Isle of Arran. From Lamlash, it’s just a short CalMac ferry ride across to Claonaig.

There’s a reason why this remote Scottish peninsula was an ideal hideaway for former Beatle Paul McCartney.

Where Arran felt rural, with its circular main road tracing the circumference of the island, this part of Scotland sees more single-track trails and passing places, with that romantic risk of finding yourself at the end of the road ever more real. In fact, that was exactly where we were going — Skipness.

An autumnal house in Skipness, Kintyre

As we approached the village, flanked by lush woodland to the north and the rugged west coast waters to the south, it felt like yesterday’s Arran summer had melted to autumn. One bright sycamore shouted a welcome to the season ahead. A few leaves lay on the lanes beside the pretty houses. I threw on an extra woolly layer then we walked east towards the shore.

Although small, Skipness is like a little bubble of what’s best about the west, from castles to cuisine.

We began by exploring inside the stone walls of Skipness Castle, which date back to the 1200s and tell of centuries of architectural and proprietary change from the MacDonalds to the Campbells. You can follow the trail of information boards around the range of rooms here, then finally up onto the tower house walls, a good few floors above the ground but with beautiful views to the houses and coastline below.

The view from the castle down to the seafood cabin

With the rain sporadically spitting and our fingers chilled, we took ourselves across the grass to the Skipness Seafood Cabin. From May until September, this converted trailer serves an array of locally-sourced seafood to those who make the trip here (sometimes solely for the seafood itself). Sophie, the owner, had a quick chat with us and then we enjoyed the huge platter — a well-needed warming bowl of mussels; brown and white crab; three types of salmon; and oysters, langoustines and scallops. In fact, the food is so local and fresh that the Skipness Smokehouse — where the salmon is smoked — is just around the corner.

The platter at Skipness Seafood Cabin

Seeing deer is more common than you’d think — you just need to travel slowly to spot them.

We strolled a bit further, along the shoreline to the medieval Kilbrannan Chapel, and then back to the car where we drove north to Tarbert. On the way, we slowed down as a man crossed the road with a camera, looking intently at something on the slope above. We turned to look; it was a huge stag, its antlers magnifying its presence, paused on the grass. Having previously explored rural regions of Scotland like Kintyre and Ardnamurchan, sights like this are more common than the guidebooks would have you believe — you just need to travel slowly enough to spot them.

Paddleboarding with Dave from Kayak Majik

We arrived at Tarbert around mid-afternoon, where our activity was to be a short but sweet paddle boarding session with Dave from Kayak Majik. A quick change behind the boats and we were soon wobbling out onto the smooth harbour water. This was our first experience of paddle boarding — unlike sea kayaking the day before — so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After overcoming initial nervousness (with thanks to Dave for his gentle encouragement!) I was soon standing and navigating around one of the small islands in the bay. Going slowly, looking down through the clear water, I could see the sand and seaweed below. It was very quiet and calming — an activity I’ll definitely be trying again!

From paddle boarding in the harbour, we then boarded our second ferry of the day.

By this time the rain was rolling in, meaning that we didn’t notice much during the crossing to the Cowal peninsula between the grey clouds and the condensation in the car! By late afternoon, we’d arrived at Portavadie, an area once earmarked for building oil platforms but now home to a luxury accommodation complex complete with multiple restaurants and a leisure suite. Dinner — featuring the Scottish classics of haggis bonbons and fish and chips — would be later before falling onto our mattresses, but first, we had a date with the outdoor infinity pool.

Relaxing in one of the rooms at Portavadie

Believed to be the largest heated outdoor infinity pool in Scotland, it is without a doubt the highlight of the sauna and spa facilities. I’m not usually the type to go swimming at a leisure centre but on this rainy September evening, as twilight fell, we had the infinity pool entirely to ourselves. The underwater lights changed from blue to green; we watched the cloud dip onto the dark outline of the Kintyre peninsula, where we’d been earlier that day; and we recharged from a busy few days exploring three different coastlines of secluded Scotland.

After breakfast and another swim the following morning, we were back on the road.

Our travels today would take us north-east across the Cowal peninsula, past the Kyles of Bute and Loch Riddon, and down to Colintraive where we’d take our fourth ferry of the trip. The drive to Colintraive was beautiful, all sea lochs, cut-up coastlines and greenery, with the stand-out view from the Tighnabruaich viewpoint highlighting the hotchpotch list of landscapes in the area they call ‘Argyll’s Secret Coast’.

The view from the Tighnabruaich viewpoint

Although we were a little late for lunch, we stopped in at the Colintraive Hotel for a coffee. The hotel has recently been taken over by a couple called Clare and Joe, who are taking great care to update the building with love, and have already started making changes to the menu. With a huge kitchen garden — which we went to explore afterwards — chef Joe updates the offerings daily, using the freshest produce he can either grow or source locally. That day we could have chosen from slow-braised oxtail ragu; local saddle of venison with fondant potatoes; west coast skate with brown butter and spinach; or Isle of Bute ribeye steak. Even the coffee itself was from Argyll Coffee Roasters not far along the road. Yes, we were disappointed we didn’t get lunch… But we will be back!

The kitchen garden at Colintraive Hotel on the Cowal peninsula

In the late afternoon, with the sun dipping lower on the horizon, we took our penultimate ferry across the short strait to the tiny port of Rhubodach for our final 24 hours of this west coast weekend on the Isle of Bute.

Have you explored this secret corner of Scotland’s west coast?

The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the VisitScotland Growth Fund.

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