Gentle and rugged, the most arduous stretch of the West Highland Way is down by the water, says Naomi Marks. But the reward is the view

When eulogising about the sublime scenery of lochside Scotland, try not to pick as your audience a young American couple so laden with packs they have barely the energy, let alone the interest, to lift their heads and take in the surroundings. And don't ask them whether they've heard of the baggage-carrier services, which could have made their walking holiday so much more enjoyable. They won't appreciate it.

My companion and I were trekking along the tortuous ups and downs of Loch Lomond's shoreline, if not as nimbly as the shaggy feral goats that we'd earlier encountered, then certainly almost as unencumbered, when we came upon such a beleaguered pair. It was the afternoon of Day Four of our West Highland Way long-distance walk, and fatigue and sore limbs were forgotten as we simultaneously experienced a huge endorphin rush.

Exhilarated by the pretty shingle bays, the shades of steel-grey cast over the loch by the surrounding peaks, the bluebells, wild garlic and vivid greens of the mature oak and beech woodland through which we walked, we had lost all ability to empathise with those so burdened they were oblivious to their environment.

Besides, the young Americans were the first people we'd seen in several hours and we were keen to share our thrills about the comic antics of the goats (descendants, legend has it, of animals liberated 700 years ago by Robert the Bruce, grateful for their unwitting role as decoy when he was on the run from the English).

An appreciation of the wildlife - midges aside - is one of the joys of walking the West Highland Way. This 95-mile path follows old drove roads, military routes, and disused railways from the outskirts of Scotland's largest city to the foot of its highest peak. It starts in unpromising fashion - a granite obelisk in Milngavie's shopping precinct marks its start. But within half an hour you are in the pretty Mugdock Country Park. Within half a day my companion and I were gripping each other in excitement, whispering "Is it, or isn't it?" as we stared at a curiously still silhouette some 100 yards away. The sudden bounce of a furry white bottom assured us it was, indeed, our first roe deer sighting.

Above all, though, the West Highland Way is for landscape lovers, a gradually unfolding journey from the gentle to the rugged. From lowland farmland and hills, the Way passes through the woodland of Loch Lomond into more open, grander country until, having crossed the bleak and eerie Rannoch Moor, struck though Glen Coe and climbed the Devil's Staircase, the full magnificence of the Highlands is before you. Always beautiful, it is also, at times, a truly breathtaking trek.

And the best thing about it is you don't have to be a seasoned rufty-tufty type to enjoy it. The hardest stretch, and one of the most beautiful is, surprisingly, the 16 or so miles along Loch Lomond where our Americans came to grief. Shortly after Rowardennan, little more than a pier and a pub nestling beneath Ben Lomond, walkers are presented with the choice of an upper or lower path. Short but steep inclines, mud, rocks and the need to clamber over huge, mossy boulders and fallen trees make the lower route hard going. But any time after spring the leaf canopy of the woodland means those on the upper path miss out on fantastic views.

In any case, a mile after Rob Roy's Prison, the cave where the outlaw allegedly held prisoners in the early 18th century, the two paths meet and there is little choice but to take the lochside scramble.

We never saw our American friends again but hope they battled on to discover this section of the Way is as hard as it gets. For then it passes through, rather than over, the Highlands. Experienced walkers attempt it in five days, and the record for its completion is 15 hours - yes,hours. For most people though, seven, eight or nine days are more realistic and enjoyable options. The longer you allow yourself, the more you're able to revel in the changing scenery.

The route is waymarked - not so heavily that you feel oversupervised but enough to ensure that getting lost is only a hazard for daydreamers (guilty, on two occasions). Importantly, you can forget crawling along like a tortoise. Baggage carriers are cheap and will drop your bags at or near your overnight stays. So there is no need to carry anything bigger than a daybag containing blister treatment, midge repellent, sunscreen, lunch, compass and camera.

Accommodation along the Way ranges from basic hostels to character hotels such as the fabulously located Kings House Hotel. Standing at the heads of Glen Etive and Glen Coe with the sheer rock bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor rearing in front of it, this remote resting place was built as a barracks and safe house for travellers in the early 1750s. Equally steeped in history is the eccentric Drovers Inn at Inverarnan, where you fight for space in the bar alongside countless stuffed creatures, suits of armour and other ephemera, including the ashes of former locals.

Use the incredibly efficient Easyways accommodation booking service, and it all adds up to a long distance walk accessible to even the only moderately fit and organised. If walking for seven days or more, no single day will take in more than 14 miles. And you need never spend the night in a tent.

More used to Sunday rambling in the south, my companion and I allowed nine days to complete the Way, our first long distance path. We may not have broken any records, but the sense of achievement as the distinctive hunch of Ben Nevis loomed ever nearer on the approach to the finishing post at Fort William was hard to beat. I just hope the young Americans eventually experienced that elation, too.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The walk starts in Milngavie, a 20-minute train journey from Glasgow. A travel service such as Travel-lite (0141-956 7890; www.travel-lite-uk.com) charges from £7-£30 to take one bag in stages along the entire route.

Where to stay

Easyways (01324 714132; www.easyways.com) offers an accommodation booking service ranging from wigwams from less than £10 per person per night to the welcome luxury of The Bridge of Orchy Hotel. Eight nights in b&bs or youth hostels costs from £130 per person, based on two sharing plus a booking fee of around £15, depending on group size and duration of stay. Accommodation is best booked in advance.

Further information

The West Highland Way: Official Guide, by Bob Aitken and Roger Smith, The Mercat Press (£14.99), and www.west-highland-way.co.uk.

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