Rail and Sail to the Small Isles
The 'Small Isles' is a description that does not really do the drama of this remarkable part of the world justice. Don't mistake their diminutive size for a lack of opportunities for adventure and sheer enjoyment. Muck and Canna are supremely relaxed wee escapes, while Eigg boasts one of my favourite hills in the world and world-class epic mountain walks await on Rum. It's all here in the Small Isles and the great news is that getting here has never been cheaper or easier. In fact whether you come here on a simple Rail and Sail ticket or a Spirit of Scotland travel pass the ferry trips are all part of the fun.
The main ferry access point for the Small Isles is the picturesque wee fishing port of Mallaig, which sits just across the water from the hulk of the Isle of Skye. Getting to Mallaig is a crucial part of the Rail and Sail experience as you get to enjoy what for me - and I've ridden trains on five continents including all the famous trains like the Trans Siberian and the Orient Express - is the world's greatest railway journey.
I'm talking, of course, of the West Highland Line, which snakes north from the Firth of Clyde towards Fort William (with a wee fork to Scotland's busiest ferry port at Oban) and then on along the West Highland Extension Line to Mallaig. En route is the spectacular 'Harry Potter' viaduct at Glenfinnan, the starched white beaches around Arisaig and bountiful opportunities for spotting wildlife.
Then there are the Small Isles themselves, which are all reached via seriously scenic CalMac sailings. Join me now as I offer a wee taster of their appeal. Trust me, they may be small, but they are brilliant fun to visit.
Eigg - For hillwalkers and environmentalists
Eigg is the most distinctive of the Summer Isles, given the unique volcanic shape of An Sgurr. It looks impossible to climb this dramatic 393m peak, but from its rear it's actually fairly straightforward for those who are well-equipped and who don't mind a wee bit of scree. One of the most impressive things about Eigg are its strong green credentials, with the locals free to run the island as they like in a sustainable manner following their efforts to become the first community to buy out their estate in 1997. The island is now run by the very community minded Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.
Where to stay - For a wee taste of luxury Lageorna is the place. The bedrooms are lovingly crafted with stylish driftwood beds and iPod docks. Dinners bursting will local produce come as part of the package.
Where to eat - If you're not staying at Lageorna there is a wee café by the pier.
Muck - For beach lovers and families
Despite the rather unprepossessing sounding name, Muck is a family friendly stunner. This bijou island - which only measures 2 miles by 1 mile - is a lot more fertile than the other Small Isles and is bathed in a rich blanket of spectacular wildflowers, which look their best in late spring. There is not much to do here apart from relax, or go for a hike around the island. The highest point is worth ascending as the views of the other Small Isles are epic from atop 137m high Beinn Airein. Make sure to allow time to stop at the beach at Gallanach, a wee sandy gem.
Where to stay - The Gallanach Lodge is a great place to stay that only opened recently. You can fall asleep here lulled by the waves gently breaking on the nearby sandy beach.
Where to eat - You can eat at the Gallanach on superb local produce and there is a great wee tearoom at the pier too.
Rum - For mighty mountaineers and wildlife lovers
Rum is the largest and most dramatic of the Small Isles. Like Skye it has its own Cuillin mountain ridge, a jagged sweep of precipitous peaks that test the skills of those daring to ascend. You need to come prepared hiking on Rum. A more relaxed experience can be enjoyed on the lower trails and coastal forays. Here you can come across the UK's largest land mammal - the red deer - face to face and scan the coast for otters around the water and majestic sea eagles in the skies. Then there is the otherworldly Kinloch Castle, a surreal pink sandstone Edwardian concoction you must visit during your stay.
Where to stay -There is a campsite. But if you prefer a solid roof there is a brand new, very well equipped bunkhouse .
Where to eat - There is a wee grocery store and a tearoom in the only real settlement of Kinloch, but you might be better off just bringing a proper picnic or your own food from Mallaig.
Canna - For Lovers of the Quiet Life and Puffins
The small isle of Canna - it is only five miles by just over a mile - is now in the possession of the National Trust for Scotland, who ensure the protection of its flora and fauna. I like hiking on this wee island as none of it is technical so you can just ramble around enjoying the views and the wildlife. The yomp up the 143m high Compass Hill is rewarded by great views back to Rum and Skye on one side and out towards the distant Outer Hebrides on the other. Look out too for golden eagles, sea eagles and cute puffins!
Where to stay - I recommend Tighard , a cosy B&B, for those not wanting to wild camp.
Where to eat - Cafe Canna is the place to try some boat fresh seafood, such as Canna lobster.
I've written a few more blogs for CalMac that may help you plan your rail and sail adventures so feel free to check these out. Enjoy your day or even days out!
Bio: 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.