Playing Hopscotch with CalMac Ferries in Argyll and Bute
Sally Akins writes about 40+ travel with a touch of luxury at www.sallyakins.com. She first got the travel bug in her teens and after a long break, she's now making up for lost time!
The Scottish Highlands and Islands are one of the hottest regions to visit right now, so you may well be planning a trip. But don't think that you need to wait to Spring or Summer to enjoy a visit - the cooler months can be just as beautiful.
When CalMac invited me to visit Argyll's Secret Coast, I knew this was an offer I certainly couldn't refuse. What I didn't realise is that my visit would leave me longing to return to one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen.
It's a long way from Shropshire to Glasgow, and I had a good six hours of driving ahead of me. But with a pile of CDs in the glove box and a bag of mints to keep me going, I started on my drive to Glasgow.
I started on familiar ground, through the rolling fields of the Shropshire countryside and over to the M6. Crossing over the Manchester ship canal, the road soon starts to open up, the traffic gets less congested and the scenery becomes prettier again. The miles quickly slipped past.
The next section of my drive would take me into Scotland, past a large Saltire proclaiming 'Fàilte gu Alba' - Welcome to Scotland.
The countryside on this part of the drive was truly beautiful, and as my little Kia's wheels spun beneath me, I was entranced by my surroundings.
The sun was setting over the Southern Highlands as I chased after the last scraps of daylight, hoping to reach Glasgow before nightfall. I continued along the M74, past Motherwell and finally into Glasgow as darkness fell over the city.
I woke after an excellent night's sleep and after breakfast, I was ready for my CalMac adventure, travelling on a CalMac Hopscotch ticket. These are island hopping tickets, each allowing you a certain number of crossings to be used within 31 days.
There are up to 30 different Hopscotch routes available, and I was travelling on Hopscotch 4. This covers crossings from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on the island of Bute, then from Rhubodach to Colintraive, and finally from Portavadie over to Tarbert on the shores of Loch Fyne.
I packed up my case and got back in my car, only to see that my fuel gauge was hovering around the empty mark. After a leisurely start to the day, suddenly I was running short of time to get to the 10am ferry to Rothesay.
Luckily, CalMac ferries run regularly and because a Hopscotch ticket doesn't tie you to any set ferry times, I could simply take the 11 o'clock ferry instead. And it's easy to check the status of your planned ferry by using the CalMac app on your mobile.
So instead of stressing over my late start, I sat back and enjoyed the drive.
Heading out to the coast from Glasgow, the traffic soon eases and the scenery opens up in front of you. The drive over to Wemyss Bay takes around an hour - it's an easy run, and very picturesque. With hindsight, I wish I had taken someone with me to share the driving. That way we could have each taken turns to gaze at the beautiful scenery.
The road winds through Greenock, past the town's impressive Italianate Victoria Tower. Before long, signs for Wemyss Bay and the ferry terminal start to appear.
I arrived at the port at about 9.50am, and headed to the ticket office where I needed to collect my tickets. When I came back to my car, one of the staff directed me straight onto the 10am ferry. It turns out that I'd just about made it in time after all!
Although I've been on many ferries over the years, I'd never driven onto one before, but it's really simple. You just drive on, turn off the engine and put the handbrake on, and head inside to enjoy the ride.
The ferry for this first leg of the Hopscotch was the largest of the three that I travelled on. As well as plenty of comfortable seating there is a cafe serving drinks and snacks. And as the journey to Rothesay takes about 35 minutes, that's enough to get a coffee and watch the mainland slip further away. Some of the larger CalMac Ferries also have quiet lounges and TV lounges to entertain you as you sail.
With just a few puffy white clouds in the brilliant blue sky, the crossing to Bute was beautifully calm. And before too long we were gliding gently into Rothesay harbour. Five minutes before the ferry is due to dock, the announcement comes for drivers to return to their cars. Once the ferry has docked, you simply drive off, and there you are on Bute!
A flying visit to Rothesay
My schedule didn't allow for much time on Bute so I settled for A wander up and down Rothesay's pretty seafront and watchED the ferries come and go. Being by the sea is always my happy place, and I eagerly breathed in the delicious salty, ozone-y sea air. The winter light was adding even more atmosphere to the scene stretched out before me, as the deep indigo blue of the sea shimmered against the moody landscape of the mainland beyond.
After an hour or so, with my face chilled and my lungs full of sea air, it was time for an early lunch before I continued on my way.
For a small town, Rothesay has plenty of options for lunch. I decided to head for Harry Haws, which gets great reviews online, and discovered that it had just launched a new menu.
Harry Haws is a lovely little restaurant with a welcoming atmosphere, and I love the vintage photos that cover the walls inside. There's a great range choice of foods, from lighter bites to more substantial meals. I really fancied trying the fish and chips, which always tastes so much better by the sea!
But conscious that I had a dinner reservation at Portavadie that evening, I opted for a baguette. It was a good choice - freshly baked bread filled with tender chicken, full of the smokey flavour of the grill. Bacon, cheese and a generous dousing of barbecue sauce completed the sandwich. I also ordered a portion of skin-on chips, which were crispy on the outside, hot and fluffy within.
But after lunch it was time for me to head back to the car and rejoin my journey. I left Rothesay reluctantly, and I know that I'll be back to explore the town properly.
The pretty drive to Rhubodach takes you along the coast and through Port Bannatyne. It should only take about 15 minutes to drive from Rothesay to the ferry terminal at Rhubodach. But you could easily take a lot longer, if you stop to admire the view.
The ferry runs every 30 minutes, and as you only need to arrive five minutes before departure for this ferry, I had time to park up and take a few more photos. It was fun to watch the ferry shuttle back and forth across the short journey, which only takes about five minutes.
And the journey itself is even simpler than travelling from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay.
You wait on the slipway until you get the signal to drive on, park up and turn off your engine. The ferry glides across the water and once it has docked, you turn on your engine and drive off.
I was sorry to say goodbye to Bute so soon, and there's a little piece of my heart left on that island. I know I'll be back soon.
Despite my best efforts, I still ended up chasing the light again on my route to Portavadie. This was a really fun drive, and I can definitely see the appeal of a driving holiday in the Highlands and Islands. The Calmac Hopscotch tickets are ideal for planning this kind of trip.
The winding road soon becomes single track, and it's important to observe the etiquette on this type of road. Be sure that you're comfortable reversing whatever vehicle you're driving, pull into passing places on the passenger side of the car, and allow overtaking if you are driving slower than those behind you. But don't use the passing places as parking spots - you'll find plenty of parking places signposted along the way.
My journey took me up through the mountains and away from the coast, through forests full of trees and ferns in shades of burnished copper and gold. It's truly a drive to savour, so give yourself plenty of time to take in your surroundings.
And at the highest point of the road to Portavadie, I came to the Tighnabruaich viewing point. Make sure you pull over here to take in the view, breathe in the crisp air and feel the wind rushing past you. It's an amazing experience, and I truly believe Argyll's Secret Coast is a secret that needs to be shared!
Back in my car, I drove down to Tighnabruaich and parked up again at the pier, taking in the gorgeous scenery from a different viewpoint. From there, it's a very simple drive over to Portavadie.
Portavadie is a village on the west coast of the Cowal peninsula, overlooking Loch Fyne. The complex was originally built as part of Scotland's oil industry, but now hosts luxury holiday accommodation, leisure facilities and restaurants.
I checked into my cosy room at the Lodge and went to take a look around Portavadie. As well as the Lodge, there are a number of small self-catering cottages, and the newly opened Hideaway. This has its own hot tub and would be perfect for a romantic getaway.
After soaking up the entrancing atmosphere of the marina at sunset, I headed off to Portavadie's spa for a thoroughly relaxing back massage. I had booked the treatment in anticipation of knotted shoulders after two full days of driving. But to be honest, the drive through Scotland's beautiful countryside had already relaxed me so much that there were no knots to be found!
I relaxed in my room for a while after my massage, before heading over to the Marina bar and restaurant. The relaxed atmosphere in the bar was perfect for catching up with a few emails before dinner.
The Marina restaurant at Portavadie looks fairly quiet and unassuming, but the food there is excellent.
After an appetiser of hand baked bread and soft salted butter, my meal started with two juicy hand-dived Talbert scallops, served with apple, salt baked celeriac and crispy pork terrine. The seared scallops were sweet, tender, full of flavour - and left me wanting more.
I struggled to decide between Scottish steak or venison for my main course. So in the end, I went with my waiter's recommendation, a beautiful piece of Winston Churchill venison. Although I love venison, it's not a meat that I eat often at home, so this was a real treat. It was served beautifully rare, on a bed of wilted spinach. Alongside there was a barley risotto, parsnip, a venison and haggis filled pastilla, all accompanied by a rich, meaty jus.
This sumptuous dish was one of the best plates of food that I've eaten all year, with everything cooked and presented beautifully. My waiter came over to check if the food was satisfactory, and the look of sheer bliss on my face meant I didn't even need to say a word!
Could my dessert really live up to the perfection of the main course?
I had originally intended to finish my meal with the artisan Scottish cheeseboard. But the first two courses were so impressive that instead I chose the dark chocolate fondant. That's always a good test of a restaurant, and I felt sure that it would be a good decision.
I was absolutely right - the fondant was rich in flavour with a molten centre. And it sat alongside a tart cherry sorbet that contrasted perfectly with the rich chocolate. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it.
With friendly service and such excellent food, it's worth going up to Portavadie for the dining alone.
I woke early on the final day of my CalMac adventure, and opened my curtains to a steely grey sky. After two days of beautiful crisp weather, I really wasn't sure what lay ahead of me.
But the day started well with breakfast in the Marina restaurant at Portavadie. It is served buffet style with a Continental breakfast and a hot Scottish breakfast both available. As well as the usual bacon, tomatoes. mushrooms and eggs, I was happy to see potato scones and square sausage. But where was the haggis?
After breakfast, I packed up and prepared to start the day's driving. I could have stayed a little later at Portavadie to use the spa facilities, including the heated infinity pool overlooking Loch Fyne. But with the weather looking undecided, I thought it wise to head straight off to the ferry terminal.
The ferry terminal is only a few hundred metres from the Lodge. So you could easily walk over there if you're staying for a few days at Portavadie and take a day trip to Tarbert. I parked up on the slipway and watched as the ferry made its way gracefully over Loch Fyne from Tarbert.
Once aboard the ferry, I headed upstairs into the passenger lounge. There was no coffee bar on this ferry, but the 25 minute journey gave me enough time to head up to the deck and take in the views.
The weather was still looking changeable, and the sky still full of grey clouds. But with the October sun occasionally peeking through the cloud cover, that gave me some fabulous moody shots of the local landscape.
Tarbert is a working fishing village, with a harbour surrounded on three sides by colourful shops, and the castle and church looking down from the surrounding hills. I parked up in the centre of the harbour front, and bundled up with my big coat, hat and gloves. It was feeling pretty chilly, and I was glad that I had packed for any eventuality.
How does the saying go? 'If you don't like the weather in Scotland, wait 10 minutes and it'll change'.
Oh how true that saying is!
I walked two sides of the harbour with cold winds buffeting my face, my cheeks rosy and frozen. By the time I reached half way down the third side, the sun was just starting to peek through. And when I reached the far point of the harbour, the sun was shining in a bright blue sky over the beautiful harbour.
Spirits lifted, coat and hat discarded, I headed back towards the harbourside shops and restaurants.
After my substantial breakfast at Portavadie, I wasn't really feeling very hungry. But I was definitely in the mood to indulge in more of those locally caught scallops before I left Tarbert. Luckily, the village has plenty of choice for places to eat, and scallops feature heavily in them.
For this meal, I ended up at Cafe Ca'Dora. It's a friendly little cafe with a good selection on menu, including my beloved scallops.
This time the scallops arrived at my table with corals intact, sizzling in their own miniature frying pan. They had been seared beautifully, and then doused in a generous amount of garlic butter. A fresh crusty roll sat alongside, and I dipped the soft interior greedily into the melted butter.
It was perfect as a light lunch, and the sweet taste of Tarbert scallops will always be an abiding memory of this trip.
Although by now the weather was looking fine, I was conscious that I'd still got around 100 miles to drive. So it was time to head off towards Inverary. The drive took me alongside the inky blue waters of Loch Fyne, and when I reached Inverneil, I couldn't resist any longer and stopped to take a photo.
I'd been told many times how beautiful the Highlands and Islands are, and seen many stunning photos. But nothing compares to seeing it with your own eyes.
Continuing on my journey, I followed the winding road through to Inveraray.
Inveraray is a charming place to take a rest and I could happily have spent a full day exploring the town. The turreted castle was once home to Clan Campbell, or you may enjoy paying a short visit to Inveraray jail.
The town has plenty of places to stop for a reviving cup of tea and some cake. And of course there are the glorious views out over Loch Fyne and the mountains beyond.
But by now the looming clouds were getting darker by the minute. I needed to make headway if I was going to avoid driving to Glasgow in the dark.
My route was taking me away from the water now, and the twisty, narrow road led me up into the mountains I'd seen from Inveraray, some of the peaks even covered with a light dusting of snow.
A sign by the roadside alerted me to roadworks up ahead, there'd be a few minutes' delay to my journey. At the bottom of the sign I saw the words 'Rest and Be Thankful', and with views like this, I felt that this was good advice.
So instead of feeling harried and harassed, or worrying about how late I would be, I stopped and turned off my engine. I rested and I was thankful for the opportunity to snap a quick picture or two. The golden light of early sunset was breaking through the heavy clouds, bathing the scenery that I might otherwise have driven straight past.
I thought the words on the road sign were just a subtle hint that drivers should be less impatient. But it turns out it's actually the name of the viewpoint that we were stopping at. After a while, the lights changed and I was on my way again. But I don't think I've ever seen a more apt name for such a glorious place to spend a few minutes.
The remainder of my drive was fairly smooth, following the road down past Loch Lomond. I stopped briefly in a parking area to take a few photos, but the weather was threatening to turn at any moment.
And as I drove, I couldn't help thinking back over my CalMac adventure. How peaceful I'd felt by the seafront in Rothesay, and that awe-inspiring view from Tighnabruaich viewpoint. The warm welcome at Portavadie, and of course those amazing scallops at Tarbert.
My trip gave me a brief taste of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and it's a taste that got me well and truly hooked. I'll definitely be back for another CalMac adventure in the future.