A trip to the Outer Hebrides two years ago had been beautiful, stunning and memorable. I couldn’t wait to get back to the magnificent wild landscapes of the Highlands and Islands. So I planned a whistlestop tour of the places of my dreams – the Knoydart peninsula, the Isle of Mull (blame Rod Stewart for that one!), the train journey from Fort William to Mallaig and the iconic Glenfinnan viaduct, all in five days.
Wasting no time, I booked a flight to Inverness and sat down with my copy of the Independent Hostel Guide to plan my trip. Seeking out locations that would give me a fix of wild beauty, places to get away from all the tourist traps, those untamed, peaceful places. Phineas Fogg would have been proud, my travel itinerary included every mode of transport – planes, buses, trains, ferries and boats.
Day One on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
First stop was unspoiled Fort Augustus, a hidden gem at one end of Loch Ness, far away from the tourist traps that seek to sell Nessie and monsters. The coach journey from Inverness follows the shore of Loch Ness with an often sheer drop to the rocky shore on the left.
I rushed to dump my bag at Morag’s hostel MORAGS LODGE LOCH NESS to get out to explore and was not disappointed. A short walk down to the shore of Loch Ness, passed bluebells, rhododendrons and pure streams babble down over the rocks. Reaching the tranquil shore, I sat and just drank in the beauty of the calm waters and distant hills. Back at Morag’s I sunk into the huge leather sofas and revelled in the joy of having not just one, but two, plug sockets by my bed. Heaven!
Day Two on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
Sneaking quietly out of my room for an early morning walk alongside the nearby Caledonian Canal, the only sounds were those of birdsong and my own footsteps. Arriving back to the now wide-awake and buzzing hostel, I enjoyed a great breakfast of eggs, beans, yoghurt, oats and nuts, setting me up for whatever adventures the day might hold.
The journey to Oban by coach took in more breath-taking views at every corner. Arriving in Oban, getting off the bus, the views across to the islands was mesmerising.
A short walk along the main street took me to BACKPACKERS PLUS OBAN, based in an old church, now a contemporary and welcoming space. Either side of the stairs to the reception area, written on the stairwell are comments and greetings from past guests to welcome you, connecting you to past travellers from around the world. Exploring Oban, started with a climb to the up to the McCaig tower in baking hot sunshine, which takes less time than you might imagine. The views from the top really are picture postcard, even though the low cloud hid the tops of the Cuillin mountains across on Skye.
Day Three on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
Just a short walk and I was on the first ferry to Mull. The ferry crosses to Craignure, where two buses leave as soon the ferry docks, one to Tobermory and one to Ffionport. I jumped on the bus to Ffionphort, which explores the west of the island.
Half full of tourists grabbing the early morning trip out to see the islands, much to everyone’s surprise, a travel commentary played as we made our journey about an hour along a single track road to the tiny port. We passed Ben More, which at over 3000 feet is often the last Munro for those who are Munro bagging, yet enveloped in low cloud, so hidden from our view. Much of the journey is close to water, so it was a delight to see, from the window of the coach, my first otter, swimming close in to shore.
Arriving in the port at Ffionphort, it’s clear that you’re somewhere remote. There’s a small stand selling seafood and a one-room ferry terminal (thankfully with a toilet!) offering shelter and selling hot drinks and snacks. It’s from this slipway that ferries go to Iona, Scrabster and the Treshnish isles. For less than £5 for a return fare, the little ferry carries you just across the water to Iona, which at just one mile wide and four miles long has to be one of the smaller inhabited islands with its own small hostel IONA HOSTEL. Landing, surrounded by tea rooms and houses, a fifteen-minute walk sees you leaving the village and Abbey behind along a quiet singletrack road. The track becomes a footpath, winding down to a deserted white sand beach. There’s a real sense of peace on Iona , nowhere was it more present for me in on this empty shore, as the clear waters lapped at my feet.
Returning to the newly fitted-out CRAIGNURE BUNKHOUSE, set practically on the water’s edge, I sat back in one of the chairs that overlook the water and enjoyed a well-earned steaming hot cuppa.
Day Four on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
A short ferry ride, then coach to Fort William and it’s time for the train to Mallaig. There’s a sense of excitement among the passengers as the train slows down as we cross the Glenfinnan viaduct, made famous by the Harry Potter movies. You can stay here at the station at GLENFINNAN SLEEPING CAR. The experts says that this is one of the most scenic train journeys and it’s easy to see why – as the hills increase in majesty and we view the isolated glens from the comfort of the train.
The friendly lady at the hostel in Mallaig (SHEENAS BACKPACKERS LODGE ) suggested a circular walk, which quickly leads out of the small town and up along a glen. Deviating from the path and following a small track along the coastline, I catch a first glimpse of one of the few remaining wildernesses in Britain, the Knoydart peninsula. As the clouds lifted, the views across to the wild and mountainous terrain of Knoydart and Skye impressive. Knoydart beckons.
Day Five on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
Securing the final place on the early morning boat to Knoydart, more a speedboat than a ferry, we skim across the deep bluey green sea. Overcome with wild childish excitement, adrenaline was pumping, this really feels like true adventure, somehow capturing the thrilling childhood stories I’d read.
A few hours on the peninsula and it was back to Mallaig, and the train back to Fort William, affectionately known as Fort Bill. With the long evenings of summer there was just enough time to take an evening walk on the empty track around Cow Hill which sits behind Fort William, obscuring the peak of Ben Nevis. Finally, I got my first glimpse of the peak – from the beautiful valley which was strikingly different from the grey town of Fort William.
Day Six on the Highlands and Islands Whistlestop Tour.
Waking early the next morning, I sit in the magnificent high-ceilinged lounge of the FORT WILLIAM BACKPACKERS, drinking in the last of the views across the valley. It’s time for the final leg home by coach and plane. There’s plenty of time to reflect – on the incredible scenery, the people I’d met from around the world, the diverse wildlife, the friendliness of everyone I came across and the vast landscapes that typify this stunning corner of the United Kingdom.
Scotland – I shall be returning soon – my heart drawn inexorably back to your wild and beautiful places.
Look here for a map showing the locations of hostels and bunkhouses in the Highland and Islands.