Wild Cowal - Home to Scotland's Finest Spa?
I've long been a fan of the wildly beautiful Cowal Peninsula and am constantly surprised that more people have not discovered this little known corner of Scotland yet. All that may be about to change following the opening of a striking new spa development at the already impressive Portavadie resort, which I reckon will finally put Cowal on the tourist map. Cowal well deserves its place there with its world-class seafood, flurry of active holiday opportunities and its scenery, which never fails to be anything but deeply dramatic.
Cowal - The Journey is Half the Fun
Getting to Cowal is half the fun. I love leaving the hustle and bustle of urban Scotland behind, sailing out across the Firth of Clyde. The 35 minute CalMac crossing to the Isle of Bute allows just enough time to grab a coffee and a cake from Bute's Electric Bakery, as the hills of Cowal loom temptingly into view. A quick drive around Bute's coast and it is time for the super cute wee trip from Rhubodach across to Colintraive on Cowal. This - the Kyles of Bute - is a gorgeous, but often forgotten beauty spot. I've taken ferries all around the world, but this trip is up there as possibly the shortest ferry trip on the planet. My wee girls didn't believe it when I pointed out where we were going (3mins, 42 seconds away). Don't go to the toilet or you will miss the journey!
If you're coming from the north or west the other option is the 25-minute sailing from Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula right to the slipway at Portavadie itself. I'd thoroughly recommend making a loop of a trip to Cowal, going out via Bute and back via Kintyre. CalMac have a range of fares and passes to make this a great value option, especially now that the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has kicked in.
Portavadie - A Destination Resort on Cowal
However you get here Portavadie is a striking sight. From the rugged coast and brooding forested hills of Cowal this gleaming glass and steel leviathan appears to rise straight out of Loch Fyne. It really is breathtaking, the main building sporting a tower that changes colour at night, not to mention the state-of-the-art 240-berth marina that lies at its heart.
I've stayed at Portavadie three times over the last half decade and am impressed by their ever-expanding range of accommodation options. There are the wee cottages cosied around a little beach, with one eco cottage designed for two that is ideal for honeymooners. Then there are budget conscious rooms down at the Lodge development and my favourite, the sleek luxury apartments in the main building.
These apartments sport wooden floors and plush white leather sofas, with massive windows that stretch from the floors to their vaulted ceilings. Ours came complete with both views and its own sauna, a sauna that came in handy after a hike on the local walking trails.
Getting Active in the Wilds of Cowal
I have done a lot of walking in and around Portavadie. There is a winding coastal path that breaks off to the north, offering a good chance of seeing otters and dolphins. To the south a wilder route takes you out across moorland to a mysterious standing stone, some lovely wee hills and, eventually, a couple of islands that connected to the mainland at low tide, Sgat Mòr and Sgat Beag.
The star of walking on Cowal, though, is the epic 47 mile Cowal Way. Handily it starts right at Portavadie. It snakes through the hills and moors all the way to the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. If you don't have time to tackle it all a good bite sized section is across the Cowal Peninsula from Portavadie to Kames and Tighnabruaich, twin villages that sit on the sea overlooking Bute. Whether you have been walking or cycling - Cowal is ideal for both - there are plenty of eating options here, including the Kames Hotel and The Royal, both renowned for their seafood. The locally landed oysters and langoustines are the highlights.
Cowal's Bountiful Natural Larder
There are plenty of eating options at Portavadie too these days. On my most recent visit I enjoyed Loch Fyne oysters cooked in a Panko crust and local king scallops at their main restaurant. This restaurant gazes out over the marina and the distant crumple of the Arran Hills through its high glass walls.
In the Lodge I opted for the delicious delights of Argyll Smokery, with a platter of smoked salmon, trout and mussels. Look out for their world-class smoked seafood onboard CalMac ferries too. At the new spa development I opted for a bento box, which came with fresh salads and Argyll Smokery products too.
The New £10 million Spa at Portavadie
It is that new Portavadie Marina , of course, that is really putting the Cowal Peninsula on the map. I've checked out most of Scotland's top spas as a travel writer and this one is up there with any of them. It sits right on the water's edge, its myriad hot tubs and pools boasting sweeping views out over Loch Fyne and Kintyre.
The highlight for me was the outside area on the ground level with its twin hot tubs and infinity pool. Floating in the heated water I could feel the Atlantic saltwater tang in the air and felt like I was swimming in Loch Fyne. Their spa treatments were spot on too, many of them using Scottish company Ishga, who use Scottish seaweed in their products.
We spent a lot of time in around the spa at Portavadie on this most recent visit, but when we weren't we were immersed in the rest of the joys of a corner of Scotland I've long been a fan of. If you've not been, or just not been for a while, hop on a CalMac ferry soon and you too can enjoy the joys of hiking or biking in the fresh air, savouring boat fresh seafood and being blown away by the epic scenery that Cowal has always boasted in such abundance.
Biog: Robin McKelvie has been travelling on Scottish ferries ever since he was a wee boy and writing about them and the places they serve since he became a travel writer in 1997. Robin has travelled to over 100 countries, but still rates Scotland 'as easily my favourite destination in the world'. These days, as well as penning travel articles for newspapers and magazines across five continents, Robin also writes guidebooks, does a lot of social media and also talks travel for the BBC. He also blogs about Scotland for multiple websites.