It’s time to follow up with the “Greatest Roadtrips” series. Last time, it was the vast expanse of Outback Australia. This time around, it is the stunning Scottish Highlands and the marathon drive starts from good ol’ London. From there, up till Fort William is a rather easy and simple enough drive. Fort William works as the age-old gateway to the Scottish wonders and it proves to be a lovely place for an overnight halt. Form here starts the real trip. After poking around Fort William, it is the Inverness, and then finally into the highlands.
For the London to Fort William leg, the most convenient stop has always been Blackpool. While there are three major cities in the vicinity, namely Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, I figured that a little more charm and a little less buzz are on the cards. From London (Westminster to be precise) to Blackpool is 384 km – about 4:30 hours of driving and from Blackpool to Fort William is 486 km – about 5 hours 35 mins drive. Then comes Ullapool, Laide (Achnasheen), Gairloch, Lochcarron (Strathcarron) and Rubha Reidh.
Of Islands, Lighthouses and Platform Nine and Three quarters
Fort William stands as a bustling town which thrives on the throng of summer tourists and comes across as a town overflowing with countless shops, hotels, and cafes. A particular reason for its popularity is that Fort William provides for the perfect stop-over from Edinburgh to Inverness. Walking down the water fringed alleys, in Town Pier is Crannog Seafood Restaurant where scrumptious mains come at £13; a great place for a perfectly timed dinner and an optimal way to start the trip. What was once a ticket office and bait store, this quayside eatery overlooking the Loch Linnhe serves seafood so fresh that locals often chime “it fairly leaps at you.” The ingredients are usually either from the owners own fishing vessels or their smokehouse and the bouillabaisse, the king prawns or the langoustines are always out of the world. And while here, why not throw in a dash of harmless fantasy, and hop onto the Hogwarts Express on Platform 9 and 3 quarters!
Scotland’s legendary West Highland Line is dubbed the Hogwarts Express Train line, photogenically featured in the Harry Potter films when Harry and crew are transported by train to Hogwarts School from King’s Cross Station’s Platform 9 3/4. The route winds through Highlands valleys and beside lochs and glens. It begins in the Highlands capital, Fort William, under the shadow of Ben Nevis at the southern end of the Great Glen.
The Hogwarts Express Train stops on request at the quiet little village of Arisaig before carrying on to Mallaig, the ferry port for the Isle of Skye. Arisaig comes across as the muggle version of Hogsmead with lovely views stretching across the waters. The little harbor town is so small that discovering it over foot is quite doable. And a good place form some classic British fish and chips.
For a nightcap, going on a daytrip to the Orkney Islands nearby comes across as a prime idea. A good bout of things to keep occupied with, including the Skara Brae, The Churchill Barriers, Scapa Flow, The Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones of Stenness and The Italian Chapel. And while at it, a stop is warranted at Kirkwall where, well hidden, is the 12th century cathedral of St Magnus. Back in town, in Contrast Brasserie at 22 Ness Bank, the dining room exudes designer style and smiling service. Not to mention the jug of water that is brought in without asking (if you have traveled through England, you’ll know it’s not common), and of course, truly delicious food. The mussels with Thai red curry or the amazing wild mushroom risotto. A choice is difficult. And while on a backpacker’s budget, comes at a steal at £10 for a two-course lunch.
Post that, it’s time for some live music, after all, it just does not cut, if there’s no music at the doorway to Scotland. Hootananny at 67 Church St. is promised to be the city’s best venue to groove in. Traditional folk and sometimes rock sessions sparkle the nights regularly. They also some very big-name bands from all over the country. Alongside music, the bar is kept well stocked with a wide range of beer which come straight from the local Black Isle Brewery.
The locales’ biggest attraction no doubt remains the Ness Islands. And the leisurely stroll to get there does not hurt either. Amidst mature Scots pine, ancient fir, beech and more, the islands look lovely and are linked to the river banks through some really endearing and elegant Victorian footbridges.
From Inverness to Ullapool, it is about 90 km and takes about 1 hour 19 mins. From here, I will be keeping off all the big cities and will take turns off the mainstream to keep things quaint and explore the more remote areas. First stop: Ullapool – the harbourside façade that looks like it has leaped out of a postcard. On a sunny day the reflections of the surrounding rocks on the bay look breathtaking. The town itself is pretty and can be wandered around in half and hour or so. Most people end up walking over to the pretty but still functioning harbour, down to the loch or up the hill behind the town that, for very little effort, which provides for wonderful views of the town and over to the Summer Isles.
There is a ferry service that connects Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, bringing in a consistent flow of jolly overnighters along with it. While there are only a few attractions per-se, an abundance of great walking paths, piles of amazing accommodation options, and not to mention the unlimited delectable seafood make this please particularly endearing. The Ullapool Bookshop at Quay St. gives a feel of a bibliophile’s old and dusty version of the town. They are nicely stocked with some gems of Scottish history and culture and the local maps come handy.
Next stop is the FBI. Not the agency, but the Ferry Boat Inn which happens to be as important to Ullapool as the castle is to Edinburgh. The wood is now bleached and the carpets unstained. That take away some of the old charm but still is a great place for the locals to mingle and have some fantastic food. The Rhue Studio lies 2.5 miles northwest of Ullapool and is home to some amazing contemporary art from the local favorite James Hawkins.
Laide and Gairloch
About 24 km and 20 mins or driving from Laide is Gairloch - another small settlement that has a number of distinct points of focus. Charlestown is the most southernly point where lies the quaint little harbour. The road meanders toward the Gairloch Golf Club which overlooks a beautiful beach. Nestled nearby are two churches – a brown stoned Free Church with stunning views and the white-harled kirk more on the inland. Nearby is the Gairloch Heritage Museum.
Rua Reidh Lighthouse Hostel
There’s the original Fresnel lens from here now housed in the Gairloch Heritage Museum. The lighthouse has been turned to a picturesque hostel. Definitely recommended for a night’s stay. And it just makes a beautiful day even better, walking up to this gorgeous lighthouse and the trek was well worth it and of course, the views are spectacular. Access to the lighthouse grounds are however restricted to hostel guests. There is also a small tea room. The guesthouse management also offers a personalized walking tour organized here that promises to be quite rewarding.
Roadtrips have something about them. The tar, the engine, the breeze, and their uncanny habit of unearthing something unique to marvel at every single time. No matter how well trodden the path is.