Find out why playing ‘Hopscotch’ with Calmac Ferries is the ideal way to explore Argyll and Bute in Scotland.
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 as well!
When CalMac Ferries invited me to take a visit to Argyll’s Secret Coast last October, I knew that this was an offer I certainly couldn’t refuse.
I didn’t realise that my visit would leave me with a longing to return to one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen.
My CalMac Route
My CalMac Story would take me from my home in Shropshire up to Glasgow for an overnight stay, and then over to the West Coast of Scotland.
I would take a ferry over to the island of Bute for a flying visit, then back to the mainland and along Argyll’s Secret Coast. After an overnight stay at the luxury spa and marina at Portavadie, the final ferry of my trip would take me across Loch Fyne to the little fishing village of Tarbert.
And then I would head back along the coastline, through the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond, back to Glasgow once more
So on a crisp Sunday morning I packed up my little car and headed up to Scotland for my very own CalMac story.
Sunday – Shropshire to Glasgow
It’s a long way from Shropshire to Glasgow, and I had a good 6 hours of driving ahead of me on day one of my CalMac story. 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.
The journey started off on familiar ground, through the little villages and rolling fields of the Shropshire countryside, and then on to the M6 northbound.
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 away.
Heading into Scotland
The next section of my drive would take me through Cumbria. The countryside on this part of the drive was truly beautiful, passing through the Lake District, and over the undulations of the North Pennines.
This is familiar ground, I’ve driven this road many times over the years. But once past Penrith, the roads and scenery became unfamilar, and as my little Kia’s wheels spun beneath me, I was entranced by the gorgeous surroundings.
Finally I made it into Scotland, past a large Saltire proclaiming ‘Fàilte gu Alba‘ (welcome to Scotland).
A golden light bathed 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, reaching my destination just before darkness finally fell over the city.
My first night in Scotland was spent at MotelOne Glasgow, which provides design led accommodation at reasonable prices. It has a fantastic city centre location, and is ideally placed if you’re travelling by train, as it is within a 10 minute walk from both Queen Street station and Glasgow Central station.
Entering the hotel through its tall doors, you come into a gorgeous lobby area with high ceilings and dramatic lighting. It feels very modern, and very spacious. There’s plenty of seating, and a cosy bar with plenty of choice.
I took the lift up to the ninth floor to my room, which was fairly small but beautifully designed. High quality bed linen ensures that you’ll get a comfortable night’s sleep. And they’ve even thought of things like putting both UK and EU plug sockets at the bedside, along with USB charging points. The spotless shower room and a decent sized TV complete a high quality room.
I settled in and decided to see about finding somewhere to eat dinner.
The Grill on the Corner
I don’t often eat at chains when I’m travelling, I prefer to get a taste of local food. But after six hours on the road, I just wanted to get a quick bite to eat close to the hotel.
The Grill on the Corner is one of 5 Blackhouse restaurants, and their first in Scotland. Each restaurant has its own character, and Glasgow is ‘the glitzy one’. It has a very glamorous, decadent interior, but also an incredibly friendly welcome.
Looking through the menu, I was slightly disappointed to see that there wasn’t any Scottish steak to be seen. Diners can choose from cuts of English, Irish, Australian, and Argentinian stead, but where was the Aberdeen Angus?
I ordered a crisp refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio and water for the table, and my starter arrived quickly. I had chosen the short rib bonbons – three truffle sized balls of tender pulled beef. They were full of flavour, and a crunchy salad provided contrast to the tender meat.
The starter was pretty good, but the main course was excellent.
The belly pork was tender, full of flavour and pulled apart easily. The fat had been rendered out of the pork during cooking, but the meat itself wasn’t dry at all.
It was served with a small amount of richly flavoured gravy, and contrast came from the tart apples and fresh savoy cabbage alongside. The crackling had been removed and turned into the kind of scratchings that I’d more usually associate with a cold pint of lager. Altogether, it was a very fine plate of food…
But the star of the show was the side order of mashed potato. Lots of places promise buttery mash, but the Grill on the Corner actually delivered. This was smooth, but not over-whipped, and you could really taste the butter that had been incorporated.
I actually sighed with pleasure when I had the first mouthful. I found myself wondering whether I could just order a plateful of it next time I eat there.
My bill came to just under £40, but the mashed potato on its own would be worth the cost.
Feeling full and satisfied, I wandered back to the hotel for an early night. Another busy day lay ahead…
Monday: Glasgow, Bute and Portavadie
I woke after an excellent night’s sleep and headed downstairs to breakfast.
MotelOne only offers a continental style breakfast but it’s a very good one. Each MotelOne has a different range of produce reflecting its location, and the Glasgow hotel offers a range of excellent pastries. They were light, crisp and tastier than those you generally get in a hotel.
There’s also a selection of breads, cheeses, meats and even some Scottish jams. You could also choose to start your day on a boiled egg.
After breakfast, I was ready for my CalMac adventure, using one of CalMac’s Hopscotch tickets. 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’d be 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 remember that I needed to get petrol. City centre driving isn’t always my strong point, so it took me a while to find a petrol station. After a leisurely start, suddenly it looked like I might miss my planned 10am ferry to Rothesay.
Luckily, that’s not a major worry with a Hopscotch ticket. The ferries run regularly, and because the ticket doesn’t tie you to any set ferry times, I could easily take the 11 o’clock ferry instead.
So I sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the drive.
Glasgow to Wemyss Bay
Heading out to the coast from Glasgow, you quickly leave the city behind you. The traffic eases up and the scenery opens up before 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 on this trip.That way we could have 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, with about 10 minutes to spare before the 10 o’clock ferry. The helpful staff on the dockside directed me to the small ticket office where I needed to collect my tickets.
When I came back to my car, one of the staff asked if I was there for the 10am ferry. It turns out that I’d just about made it in time after all!
On the Ferry to Rothesay
Although I’ve been on many ferries over the years, I’d never driven onto one before. It’s really simple though. You just drive on, turn off your engine and put the handbrake on, and head inside to enjoy the ride.
The ferry for this journey was the largest of the three that I travelled on during my visit. As well as plenty of comfortable seating there is a cafe serving drinks and snacks. As the journey to Rothesay takes about 35 minutes, that was long enough to get a coffee and watch as we moved away from the mainland.
Some of the larger CalMac Ferries have quiet lounges and even TV lounges to keep you entertained as you sail.
With a blue sky and just a few puffy white clouds around, the crossing to Bute was beautifully calm. Before long we were gliding gently into Rothesay harbour.
Five minutes before the ferry is due to dock, you return to your car. Then 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 me much time to stop on Bute. But nevertheless I hoped to see something of Rothesay before I continued my journey.
But apparently the fates were conspiring against me. Bute Museum doesn’t open on Mondays, Bute Castle was closed for maintenance and I didn’t have time to pay a visit to Mount Stuart. All of these will have to wait for my next visit to the island.
Instead I settled for wandering up and down Rothesay’s pretty seafront and watching the ferries come and go. Being by the sea is always my happy place, and I greedily breathed in the delicious salty, ozone-y sea air.
The winter light added extra atmosphere to the scene stretching out before me, the deep indigo blue of the sea, and 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 lunchtime.
Lunch at Harry Haws
For a small town, Rothesay has plenty of options for lunch. After some consideration, I decided to head for Harry Haws which gets great reviews online.
Harry Haws is a lovely little restaurant, and I loved the vintage photos that are displayed on the walls. I was greeted by the friendly staff, and started looking through the menu. There’s a great range choice of foods, from lighter bites to more substantial meals. I really fancied trying a Harry Haws burger or the fish and chips, which is always 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 – crunchy fresh baked bread filled with tender chicken full of the smokey flavour of the grill. All topped off with bacon and cheese and smothered in barbecue sauce. I also ordered a portion of skin-on chips, which were crispy on the outside, fluffy within.
It was a massive lunch, and I couldn’t manage to finish it all.
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 for a proper visit one day.
Leaving Bute – Rhubodach to Colintraive
This pretty section of the drive takes you along the coast and through Port Bannatyne. It should only take you about 15 minutes to drive from Rothesay to the ferry terminal at Rhubodach. But you could easily take a lot longer than that if you stop to admire the view.
The ferry runs every 30 minutes, you only need to arrive five minutes before departure for this ferry. That gave me some time to park up and take a few more photos.
It was fun watching 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, and watch as the ferry docks and the cars drive off. Then you wait for the signal to drive on, park up and turn off your engine. The ferry glides across the water and when 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 go back again soon.
Colintraive to Portavadie
Despite my best efforts to leave Bute early, I still ended up chasing the light again on my way to Portavadie.
This was a really fun drive, and I can definitely see the appeal of a driving holiday through this area. 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 these. Be sure that you’re comfortable reversing whatever vehicle you’re travelling in, 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, away from the coast, through forests full of burnished gold leaves and ferns. It’s a beautiful drive, and definitely one to savour. Don’t rush on your way, give yourself time to take in your surroundings!
Finally, at the highest point of the road to Portavadie, I came to the Tighnabruaich viewing point. Make sure you pull over here and take in the view, breathe in the air, 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 again, I drove down Tighnabruaich and parked up again at the pier. this allowed me to take in the gorgeous scenery from a different viewpoint.
From there, it’s a very simple drive over to the marina at Portavadie.
A Night at Portavadie
Portavadie is a village on the west coast of the Cowal peninsula, overlooking Loch Fyne. The complex was originally built as part of the oil industry, but now hosts holiday accommodation, beauty and leisure facilities and a number of 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 cottages, and the Hideaway, with its own hot tub. This would be perfect for a romantic getaway.
After taking in the views over the marina at sunset, I headed off to Portavadie’s spa for a back massage. I had booked the treatment in anticipation of knotted shoulders after two days of driving.
But to be honest, the drive through Scotland’s beautiful countryside had already relaxed me. So there were no knots to be found at all!
I relaxed in my room for a while before heading over to the Marina bar and restaurant. The bar has a very relaxed atmosphere, a perfect place to catch up with a few emails before dinner.
Dinner in the Marina restaurant
The Marina restaurant is fairly quiet and unassuming, but the food I ate was amazing.
After an appetiser of hand baked bread with soft salted butter, my meal started with two juicy hand-dived Talbert scallops. These had been seared perfectly and served with apple, salt baked celeriac and a crispy pork terrine. The scallops were sweet, tender, full of flavour – and left me wanting more.
I struggled to decide between steak or venison for my main course, and in the end followed my waiter’s recommendation.
So my main course was 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 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 ask if the food was satisfactory, but the look of sheer bliss on my face told him all he needed to know!
Could my dessert really live up to the perfection of the main course? I had originally intended picking the artisan Scottish cheeseboard. But I had been so impressed by the first two courses that I decided to choose the dark chocolate fondant. That’s always a good test of a restaurant, but I felt sure that it would be a good decision.
I was right – the fondant was rich in flavour, with a soft oozy 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 taking a trip up to Portavadie for the dining alone.
Unsurprisingly, I slept well that night, and woke up refreshed and ready for the final day of my trip.
Tuesday – Tarbert, Inverary and Loch Lomond
I awoke early on the final day of my CalMac adventure to a grey sky. After two days of beautiful weather, I really wasn’t sure what lay ahead of me.
But the day started with a good breakfast at in the Marina restaurant at Portavadie. The first meal of the day is served buffet style with a decent Continental breakfast selection plus a hot Scottish breakfast on offer. And I was happy to see that potato scones and square sausage were available.
But where was the haggis? I couldn’t believe that my trip to Scotland wouldn’t include one of my favourite national dishes!
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 their heated infinity pool which overlooks the Loch. But with the weather looking undecided, I thought it was wise to head off to the ferry terminal.
Portavadie to Tarbert
The Portavadie ferry terminal is only a few hundred metres from the Lodge. This means you could easily walk there if you’re staying for a few days at Portavadie. I parked up on the slip way and watched the ferry’s graceful procession over Loch Fyne from Tarbert.
Once on board the ferry, I headed upstairs into the passenger lounge. There was no coffee bar on this ferry, but the 25 minute journey was just long enough to take in the views.
The weather was still looking changeable, and the sky still full of grey clouds. But that gave me some fabulous moody shots of the local landscape, with the October sun occasionally peeking through the cloud cover.
Once off the ferry, I could see Tarbert’s pretty harbour. Tarbert is a working fishing village, and the harbour is surrounded on three sides by colourful shops. Meanwhile the castle and church look down on proceedings 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 possibility. 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 around 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 third side, the sun streamed down from a bright blue sky. The harbour was looking picture perfect again.
Spirits lifted, coat and hat discarded, I headed back towards the harbourside shops and restaurants.
Lunch at Cafe Ca’Dora
After such a hearty 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.
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, corals intact, sizzling in their own miniature frying pan. They had been seared beautifully, and then doused in generous amount of garlic butter. A fresh crusty roll sat alongside, and I dipped the soft interior greedily into the garlic butter.
It was delicious, absolutely perfect as a light lunch. And the sweet taste of Tarbert scallops will always be an abiding memory of my visit to this beautiful area.
Although by now the weather was looking fine, I still had around 100 miles to drive before reaching Glasgow. So it was time to head off towards Inverary.
Road to Inverary
The drive took me alongside the inky blue waters of Loch Fyne. 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, but seeing it with my own eyes……
Continuing on my journey, I followed road alongside the Loch until I reached Inveraray.
Inveraray was a wonderful place to take a break, 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 Inverarary Jail.
The town has plenty of places to stop for tea and cake, and of course there are the glorious views out over Loch Fyne and the mountains beyond.
But by now dark clouds were starting to loom , and the sky was getting darker by the minute. I needed to make headway if I wanted to avoid driving to Glasgow in the dark.
My route took 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 had a light dusting of snow on them.
Rest and Be Thankful
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 were the words ‘Rest and Be Thankful’. And with views like this, it seemed like very good advice. Instead of feeling harried and harassed, and worrying about how late I was, I stopped and turned off my engine.
I rested and I was thankful for the opportunity to snap a quick picture or two.
The late afternoon sun broke through the heavy clouds. It bathed the scenery that I might otherwise have driven straight past in the soft golden sun of early sunset
I thought the words were just a subtle hint that drivers should be less impatient while they wait. But it turns out that it’s actually the name of the viewpoint.
After a while, the lights changed and I was on my way again. But I ‘ve never seen a more apt name for such a glorious place to spend a few minutes.
Loch Lomond and onwards
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 clouds looked very ominous.
But as I drove, I couldn’t help thinking back over my CalMac story. How peaceful I’d felt by the seafront in Rothesay, that awe inspiring view from Tighnabruaich viewpoint, the warmest of welcomes at Portavadie, and of course those amazing scallops at Tarbert.
Playing Hopscotch with Calmac Ferries gave me a brief taste of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It was a taste that has got me hooked.