Scottish holiday inspiration with Robin McKelvie
Now that spring has finally sprung it's the ideal time to get out and about exploring Scotland's epic sweep of scenery. I've been travelling on Scotland's ferries since I was a wee boy and I'd like you to join me now as I open up the world of CalMac ferries and the adventures they take you to...
These days CalMac ferries themselves are all part of the experience. If you've not been on one for a while you will see what I mean. They've never been more comfortable and their cafes and shops never better stocked. In this Year of Food and Drink Scotland you can sip a Tobermory whisky from Mull as you tuck into a steak and Arran Ale pie, or savour Skye tablet, Lewis black pudding, Barra fish or Lockerbie Cheddar in the famous CalMac 'n' Cheese.
The journey possibilities are almost endless as CalMac now sail 27 routes to 24 destinations in the Hebrides, Firth of Clyde and on the mainland. I recommend taking a day trip if you're short on time. Calmac's Go Days Out brochure features myriad options. Some of my favourites include the grand Mount Stuart Experience on Bute, the Visit Staffa and the Family Whalewatch cruise from Oban.
You can get active in the great outdoors on organised CalMac day trips too. How about an Islay Wildlife Sea Safari, which includes an Arran Sea Adventures boat trip in search of seals, dolphins and whales? Or the Discover Rum Walking Tour on one of my favourite isles for hiking? Did you know too that you can even swim with seals on a new tour from Tobermory?
The only downside of a day trip with CalMac is that it always leaves me wanting more! I'm a big fan of a weekend ferry break or a longer trip out around the isles. I've written a piece on what fun ferry holidays are for families, but I'd recommend them to everyone, whether you are seven or seventy, want to relax in a seafood restaurant just the two of you, or yearn to bash up a Munro mountain with likeminded friends.
With CalMac's choice of tickets and passes the flexibility is there too. Every year I always make sure to fit in a trip 'Doon the Watter'. I love the Firth of Clyde isles of Arran, Bute and Cumbrae. Cumbrae is great for cycling around and just relaxing, while Bute tempts walkers and beach lovers. Arran is eulogised as 'Scotland in Miniature' and it really does cram in a lot with beaches, a distillery, brewery, mountains and a great food and drink trail. You'll find wildlife throughout all these isles and golf courses aplenty too.
Pushing further west across Kintyre (which is also accessible by ferry) we come to the Inner Hebrides. CalMac handily split this sprawling necklace of islands into the Southern Hebrides, Inner Hebrides and finally Skye, Raasay and the Small Isles. If you want to follow a longer itinerary I recommend travelling northwest from the Clyde.
Each part of the Inner Hebrides boasts its own charms. The Southern Hebrides offers the laidback lifestyle of self-sustainable Gigha, the famed whisky isle of Islay, with its eight distilleries, and the walkers' oasis of Jura. Little Colonsay is another of my favourites, with its sandy beaches, little hills and old world pace of life.
Continuing north on our itinerary we come to CalMac's Inner Hebrides. Mull is home to the only island Munro outside Skye, a distillery, chocolate box pretty Tobermory, and is one of Scotland's best places to view wildlife on land, sea and in the air. The spiritual escape of Iona is just across the water, while Coll tempts with its 23 beaches and basking sharks, neighbouring Tiree with its windsurfing.
Before we reach the mighty Isle of Skye, with its world-class mountains, pretty villages, distillery, brewery, Michelin star restaurants and craft industries, we come to the Small Isles. Muck, Eigg and Canna all support fascinating little communities, while Rum tempts with its hiking. Raasay lies meanwhile on Skye's east coast and is even more laidback than Skye. All these isles boast epic views back across to the Isle of Skye, the largest island on Scotland's west coast outside the Outer Hebrides.
Across the Minch that sinewy archipelago awaits, stretching 130 miles from Barra Head to the Butt of Lewis. There are myriad isles in the Outer Hebrides to choose from. For cyclists I'd opt for the relatively flat Uists (North Uist and South Uist), while walkers may prefer the hills of Harris. Everyone tends to be bewitched by the epic beaches of the west coast, with my favourites Uig Sands on Lewis and the string of beaches on Harris. If you're short on time Barra, for me, works like a little 'Outer Hebrides in Miniature' with some of the best bits rolled into one island.
If you fancy a day out this spring or an even longer adventure - or maybe you are looking to plan the ideal summer getaway - then why not hop on a CalMac ferry? There are myriad options whether you crave a romantic escape with a loved one, are with your family, in a group of friends or are just travelling alone. What are you waiting for?
About the Author
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.