Scotland, travel review: A home from home right by the sea

Port Appin Lighthouse

Port Appin Lighthouse - Credit: Archant

Scotland off season? Surely not. But Prudence Ivey finds it’s worth sitting out a few showers for a wealth of stunning views.

The second lounge at the Airds Hotel, Port Appin

The second lounge at the Airds Hotel, Port Appin - Credit: Archant

Sitting in the small ferry building on the Isle of Mull, shiveringly eating a sweaty microwaved Scotch pie and looking out on the lashing grey stretch of sea between us and Iona, I finally understood David Balfour’s desolation when he gets shipwrecked near this very coastline in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

I’d brought the book with me as a holiday read because much of the action takes place in the exact locations we’d visited but so far, it had been hard to identify with the feelings of isolation and hopelessness the main character describes in the rugged landscape, which is gasp-inducingly beautiful.

But at that precise moment on Mull, in the rain, the paperback in my rucksack wet and wrinkling, things were looking bleak. Why had we decided to head to Iona where, we’ve been warned, we won’t find a café, pub or shop, in February? In fact, why have we come to Scotland at this time of year at all?

And then, just as we’re boarding the boat, the clouds part, the sun comes out, and we’re reminded that we’re in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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What’s more, despite it being very much out of season, the Iona Craft Shop has wi-fi and flat whites (alongside very lovely knitwear), for a quick urban fix before we explore the ruined nunnery and the abbey founded by St Columba in 563 and enjoy a brisk walk over some springy, sometimes quite boggy, moorland.

It’s wonderful being surrounded by the sea and the scenery but even more wonderful to return after our adventures to the cosy luxury of the Airds Hotel in Port Appin, a 20-minute drive from the mainland ferry terminus in Oban. Having a tray with a pot of leaf tea and a plate of shortbread or fruitcake brought up to our suite while a deep bath is running is the stuff dreams are made of and instantly counteracts the weatherbeaten feel of the day.

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That is where the charm of the hotel lies; it presents you with a fantasy version of ‘home’ where someone else makes everything happen, leaving you free to wallow in baths, curl up with books or board games by roaring log fires, or enjoy a restorative gin and tonic while making the most serious decision of the day – what to pick for dinner.

Even having worked up an appetite we don’t feel quite equal to the tasting menu, and the three-course option comes with enough amuse bouches and pre-desserts to not feel we’re missing out. Ingredients are local, which means fish features heavily, from Inverawe smoked salmon and Mull crab, to lemon sole and sea bass, all served up in French-influenced dishes, presented with plenty of artistic flourishes on the plate. It’s a leisurely affair and proved a perfect opportunity to scope out our fellow guests, who vary from mid-week retired couples to young Glaswegians getting away for a romantic long weekend.

For total relaxation, you could happily spend a day pottering near the hotel, beachcombing along the shoreline across the road, walking to Port Appin lighthouse and admiring the glassy waters of Loch Linhe, backed by mustard and plum coloured mountains, which had received snowy caps just before our visit.

For those who feel need to counteract the non-stop guzzling at the hotel with some physical activity, there are alternatives near at hand.

Set on our way by kippers and porridge with cream and a wee dram, we rented bikes from the friendly folk at Port Appin bike hire and cycle down to the pier to catch the little ferry to the nearest island, a 10-minute boat ride away. Less dramatic than Mull and Iona, Lismore is a pretty spot, with rolling mossy green hills, farmland and whitewashed hamlets, only 10 miles from end to end and peppered with ruins.

A particular highlight – aside from a stop for a fizzy drink and a read of the local notices at the village shop – is Achanduin Castle, a 13th-century ruin which we explore undisturbed by a living soul aside from a few sheep. Having the opportunity to enjoy such a wealth of spectacular scenery and history without needing to dodge your fellow tourists is a total treat. If the payoff for this off-season privilege is sitting out a few rain showers then so be it.

If nothing else, I can claim an authentic connection to literature.

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